An Elevator Conversation

I stepped into the elevator and held the door for the person behind me. I pushed the “3” button for myself.

“Where you heading?” I asked the other.

“Fourth floor, I guess. Where are you heading?” I glanced over at my elevator roomie. He had an emo haircut, black. Sardonic smile. His outfit featured denim. Things had suddenly gotten existential.

“My short-term plans call for floor three,” I said. “After that, things get fuzzy.” My first stop after the elevator was going to be the men’s room, but I didn’t feel the need to tell him that.

He smiled sideways. After a few seconds he said, “Gotta sit in a room for an hour.”

Although his statement struck me as curious, it never occurred to me to ask him to expand. It’s an elevator. “Hey, those rooms aren’t going to sit in themselves,” I said.


The elevator pinged once and the doors opened much more slowly than they had before the elevator was upgraded. Off I went on my third-floor business.

Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about Klein bottles, rooms that can sit in themselves, and the implications for security. Those would not be practical rooms.


The Squirrel of Darkness

I pass through a cemetery on my morning commute, and I’ve come to know many of the residents. There is, for instance, a family of red squirrels that live in an ancient tree that shades a primarily Japanese section of the graveyard. It is a tradition in many Asian cultures to honor the departed by leaving offerings, including citrus fruits and other items of food.

The squirrels play a vital role as agents for the spirits, gathering and appreciating the offerings. It is not theft; the squirrel is a proxy for things that can be felt but not seen, things that cannot eat but gain their nourishment through their furry surrogates.

Sometimes the squirrels make a mess of things, knocking over the cup that holds the burned-out incense sticks, scattering flowers and decorations. Spirits can be mischievous; it is the duty of their agents to express that in the physical world.

I said it was a family of red squirrels, but that is not strictly true. There is one among them with fur as black as the heart of a killer on a moonless night.

The dark spirits need their sustenance as well.


A Long Ramble

Note: When you spend a long time driving, you have a lot of time to think of stuff. I pulled a few paragraphs out of this episode and put them in one of their own, but this is still one hell of a muddled ramble. Even without the Theology and sociology, we’ve got us some philosophy, a (somewhat disguised) treatise on storytelling, thoughts on agricultural practices, lovely, curvaceous roads, and lunch. Not in that order.

I slept rather late this morning, in a awkward position it would seem as my entire left arm was numb when I finally stirred. I lifted it and flexed it, enjoying the curious feeling while it lasted. How nice it is to be easily amused.

Awake, showered, ponytailed and behatted, coated liberally with PABA, I got the hell out of Dodge. One more life ambition checked off. I headed in the direction of Garden City. All around me food was being made. Big round fields of it stretched across the landscape, the radius of the circles defined by the length of the irrigation pipe. I heard the grumbling engines working to draw the water from the depths and pump it out to the thirsty plants. Sometimes I passed other factories dedicated to turning the vegetable food into meat food. The only exception to the single-minded devotion to food production was an occasional oil well. One way or another, it was all about energy.

I was well past Garden City when I started to wonder if that was the way I really should be going. Not so much, it turns out. At Lakin I made a course correction, crossing the Arkansas River and heading due south on Sunflower 25. The Arkansas was bone dry. As I went south the land became more sere, the spaces between the verdant circles greater and the uncultivated areas scrubbier. It occurred to me that, like the oil, the water would run out some day as well.

The highway was not crowded, and I was gradually catching up to an SUV. I thought I smelled burning rubber, and soon after a cloud of blue smoke came from the left side of the SUV. Only after a few more seconds did the driver hit his brakes and begin to move to the side of the road, the smoke getting thicker all the while. At first it was difficult to tell in the mirage of the hot pavement, but it seemed like something was separating from the truck. The something resolved itself into a tire, or at least the tread of a tire, a big rubber donut bounding across the road and into the ditch on the other side. The SUV pulled over, its naked, shiny chrome rim shooting sparks as it dragged across the pavement. The truck had super-low-profile tires on expensive wheels, and one of the tires had lost its sidewalls and gone off on its own. Important note to people who buy fancy tires like that: Check the pressure often. Those tiny sidewalls don’t give you any room for error.

Hugoton is an attractive little farm town, and I decided it would be a good place to break my fast. I stopped at Dominoes, which was doing a fair lunch business when I walked in. It may surprise you to learn that I was the only long-haired male in the place wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals. As any Czech will tell you, however, a friendly hello to the people in charge will almost always be returned in kind, and I found I had stumbled into a very friendly place. By Czech standards. The men in their blue jeans and shirts with snaps discussed offshore drilling and the price of oil (down nine cents), along with farm topics, and the waitress spent her time trying to drown me with iced tea. Ah, America! When I paid, she asked, “do you want some ice tea to go?”

I joined highway 56 in its dogged pursuit of WSW, across the Oklahoma panhandle. It’s the sort of road that people joke isn’t 100 miles but the same mile 100 times. One mile was different, however. At the side of the road was a cross, elaborately decorated. Someone had died there, presumably as the result of an automobile accident. I had to wonder, why there? Sometimes when you see a roadside memorial you can piece together what happened. A sudden curve or the end of a passing lane. You can see the threat the driver faced and understand it. Other times, like this time, there are no such clues, no such reason. It could have been any place along that road. But it happened there, at that mile, and that is where the story ends (or begins?), and that mile is forever changed.

I imagine there were people who asked, why him? after the accident. Perhaps there were clues, the driver’s own personal dangerous curves — drugs or alcohol or fatigue or cell phone. Perhaps not. Perhaps, just like that unlikely mile, there was nothing to mark that person for death. Someone else ran him off the road. He had a blowout. In that case, why him is just as meaningless as why there. There’s really now answer at all, no reason it might not be me next time.

Fuel in Clayton, and a decision to take the Cimarron-Taos scenic route. Not a difficult choice, really. I found myself on the sort of road small sports cars are made for, on the sort of day that convertibles are made for. (Note to drivers of big-ass pickup trucks creeping along at twenty miles per hour: If you see a bunch of cars behind you, just pull over for a moment. It’s obvious you’re not in a hurry anyway.)

How is it that Taos, NM, has near-perpetual traffic problems?

Now I am at the folk’s house, windows open, the temperature comfortably cool, thinking that I’ve spent way too much time blogging tonight (as I’m sure many of you will agree), especially since I have a story I thought up out there on the road that I want to start working on. That’s the thing about the road — you just can’t stop thinking of stuff.

Civilization, God, and Stuff

On the night stand by my head a bible rests, open and cradling the TV remote. It occurred to me that the specific page the bible was open to was likely not an accident. It was a message from the very friendly proprietor of Thunderbird Motel, words he thought might most help a wandering soul passing through. The bible was open to 2nd Chronicles chapter 6. It’s a fairly literary chapter, opening with King Solomon giving a sort of State of the Union address as he dedicates their new temple, the very first one Israel has ever built. The short version of that speech could be, “now we are civilized.” From wanderers with no strong central authority they had turned into city-dwellers, answering to a king.

The message then seems a good one for someone passing through a hotel room. Accept the Lord and have a place where you belong. Give up your directionless life. Become civilized. While I declined the offer, it was nice of the hotel people to remind that it was on the table.

My definition of civilization is, “the set of rules and behaviors that allows lots of people to live in the same place.” This differs somewhat from the dictionary definition, but I think my definition is more useful, since it deals with both the origins and consequences of civilization. When we are around others, we must be civil. For the past few days I’ve been wondering what comes after civilization. What happens when the benefits of a civil culture — security, getting big projects done, and so forth — are no longer needed? When I put it that way, it doesn’t seem likely to be a question we need to answer any time soon, but that hasn’t stopped me from contemplating it. I can imagine ways technology could replace any benefit of a civil culture. I’m working on a story in a place like that. Not Utopia so much, that just seems like civil culture taken to its greatest extreme. Something else. I’ll figure it out.

Overheard In My Apartment

I talk to myself often, but I rarely listen. Tonight I was standing in the middle of the room, looking about, when I heard myself say, “There’s a new kind of wisdom in town.”

The Last Breath of Summer

A while back I wrote a story about the first warm day of the year. It is about beginnings, and about the endings that, like winter, must surely follow. The first warm day is a magical event; not only is the city transformed, not only do the people around you seem to have shed their dour moods along with their winter jackets, it is as if the rays of the sun shine straight into your soul, and the air that fills your lungs makes it feel like you haven’t inhaled in months. It is not a day for working.

The last warm day of the year has a similar magic. If the beginning of summer carries with it the knowledge that there will be an end, the last warm day is greeted with thanksgiving — one more day of summer. A reprieve. There have already been cold days, the clouds have settled in and look like they’re planning to stick around for a few months. (I was in the city center a couple weeks back, and I was surprised to see so many tourists. I had to remind myself that summer still lingered in much of the northern hemisphere.) Then out of nowhere comes one or two beautiful days. There is a chill to the air, there’s no forgetting what’s coming, but that just adds to the magic. This is a bonus day, a day life didn’t have to give you, but you caught it in a good mood. Life smiled indulgently and said, “Oh, I suppose one more can’t hurt.”

Sunday was such a day. When given such a gift, you owe it to life to make the most of it. You wouldn’t want to appear ungrateful, after all. So it was that Sunday afternoon found fuego and me sitting in the very beer garden where the above story takes place, chatting about this and that, watching the dogs play, and enjoying long silences while we looked out over the Old Town. The place was full, but they know how to keep things moving at the beer window.

We had arrived in the early afternoon; by the time we left the sun had set long since. We watched as the light put the city through a series of transformations, through the Golden Hour and into the night. I imagined people sitting on that same hillside one hundred years ago. I looked for buildings that wouldn’t have been there back then, and I thought about what the scene in the park might have looked like, thinking about the images of nicely-attired members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire out for a promenade, parasols twirling lazily.

The styles and mannerisms might change, but I’m sure the people back then talked about the same things fuego and I discussed: the beauty of the city spread out before us, and our great fortune to have one more warm day to enjoy it.

My Heart

My Heart

My heart does not go pitter
My heart does not go pat
Call me old and bitter
I’m OK with that.

Lost in the Cosmos: Are you tired of this yet?

So you’ve all read Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
by now, right? No? You should. Seriously. It pissed me off but it changed the way I thought of the Kafka story I just read. You can’t do much better than that. It opened to me a whole school of thought about thought, (I would prefer not to confuse this with philosophy) with language as a key element. I’m a big fan of language.

Yet here I am picking at the assumptions in the book again. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

The question for today is “where did consciousness come from?” An interesting idea in the book is that self-consciousness was more or less an event – almost overnight we went from being animals reacting to the environment to humans building worlds in our heads. That’s about when we started drawing pictures on cave walls and making up stories. And look at us now.

Walker Percy, the author of Lost, points out that natural selection really isn’t so good at explaining this event. He points out that most people in the world don’t actually need, and have never needed, as much brain as they have. His position is (I think) that at some point the bigger brain would not have had an advantage, natural-selection-wise, unless there was another force at work.

Pf. Chicks dig poets. Enough said about that, except that I really need to work on my poetry skills.

So here we are, carrying big brains around on our skinny necks, brains so big we sometimes kill our mothers during childbirth, and even then we are helpless for a couple of years because there’s no way our full-grown brain is going to make it out of there. These big brains of ours are nothing but trouble. How did any species evolve where the child killed the mother so regularly? How did it all happen so fast?

The sober among you have probably noticed that I have subtly switched “self-conscious” for “big brain”. I’ll defend that later, unless I forget to.

But even so, how does natural selection, a patient and steady process, explain the sudden and dramatic arrival of something completely new? Being completely ignorant of modern biological theory and even more ignorant of the alternatives, I feel I am the man to answer that question. Challenged by Percy, I turned the question upside-down; where he states evolutionary theory can’t explain this enormous departure from anything that happened before, I asked myself, “what would you have to do to evolution to make it work in this case?”

My answer: the Totally Kick-Ass Mutation. In geekly terms, it’s a mutation that is not an event, but a vector. Once the ball starts rolling, it’s such a great idea that even the slightest variation provides a huge advantage.

I imagine that with genetic inheritance there is ‘noise’, a statistical variation in inherited traits that normally doesn’t mean much. But when there is a new thing going on, that noise can dramatically accelerate change. Let’s say, for a moment, that a flying reptile had a little extra fiber on the trailing edges of his wings, that measurably improved his flying. In the following generations, the ones with the more pronounced wing-fibers simply kicked ass. The tiny variations introduced by genetic noise turned out to be a big deal, the slight variations themselves dramatic improvements, and overnight we had feathers. It all happened so fast that intermediate fossils don’t exist.

So are brains like feathers? I’ve met a few folks where the comparison is obvious. The brain explosion seems to have followed a seemingly innocuous skeletal development. “Idle hands do the devil’s work,” the saying goes, and the fossil record seems to bear this out. With the locking knee, which allowed a fairly typical primate to stand upright, freeing the hands, the brain started to grow dramatically. Causal? Hard to prove, but when you compare a Greg Maddux slider with a monkey throwing poo, you can begin to understand. Free up the hands and you have power, as long as you have the brain to use it. There are physiological differences, but making a good throw requires a lot of brain. Hitting a rabbit with a rock is a massive ballistic calculation, and there’s no time to work out the angles. But if you succeed, you eat.

Introduce also that the larger brain facilitates larger social groups (enter language), and you have a Totally Kick-Ass Mutation, one in which only slight variations can prove to be a huge advantage. I imagine this big-brain trend continued right up to the invention of distilled spirits.

‘Enter language’, I said up there, casually, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s the moment that Percy cites that separates man from the beasts. A singularity. Language is synonymous with self-awareness because the symbolic distillation of the world requires an interpreter: the self. We are unique in the universe (as far as we know) in our ability to completely misunderstand everything.

My use of the word ‘singularity’ is not casual, there is a school of thought that mankind is approaching another singularity in which, either through genetic manipulation or cybernetics or both, we bypass evolution and design our own replacement. The moment when we lose control of this process and become truly obsolete, the moment the new intelligence leaps so far beyond us that we are quaint but clever animals, that’s the singularity. After reading Percy, though, I see that this would be the second singularity.

Interestingly, Percy (with my help) set the definition of the next singularity. The first: self-awareness. The second: self-knowledge. Something will happen, something as unfathomable to us as introspection is to a bunny rabbit, and a new sort of intelligence will be born.

Unless the liquor brings us down first.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Lost in the Cosmos: A few more thoughts.

Some of this stuff falls outside the normal subjects covered in this blog (whatever that means), but it’s my Media Empire and I’ll do what I want. Actually, I’m not sure just what I’m going to put here yet, but just in case it’s ponderous, long-winded, and nonsensical (a distinct possibility), here’s a link I found by googling “potato eye rutabaga”. It’s almost certain to be more interesting that what follows.

First off, a couple of people commented on my first post about this book to point out that the author would probably be happy to discover that his book annoyed me. I said as much myself in the original post. It’s hard to imagine that he would be displeased to have provoked a thoughtful (if badly uninformed) response from a reader of his work. While the latter parts of the book annoyed me less, there were still assumptions I found problematic.

I was almost to the end of the book when I put my finger on one of the things that was troubling me. There is a stated assumption in the book that the world is a mad, ugly, brutal place, and that people are having a hard time dealing with it should come as no surprise. Part of his premise is that this is a new development, that the rise of technology and the decline of traditional ways for an individual to place himself in the world (specifically, religion) have led to historically desperate times for a species that is aware of itself, but is thoroughly unable to grasp itself the way it can any other thing in the cosmos.

Saying that things are different now is a tricky thing. In high school one of my favorite teachers pointed out that the historically large body of poetry and literature produced by soldiers during World War I was a reflection of a new level of horror that technology had brought to war. She might be right, I’m sure as hell glad I’ll never know those hardships, but I raised my hand. Might it just be that this was the first war where most of the foot soldiers were literate?

So, it’s hard to compare previous times to our own. Walker Percy cites many statistics of increasing behaviors that would be indicative of a growing dislocation of selves in a world that is increasingly mad, but I wonder. Perhaps there is a hierarchy of problems people face: eating, staying warm, reproducing, understanding your place in the universe. That does place us in a historic period; most people on this planet are going to eat dinner tonight, most are going to sleep under a roof, and some have even decided not to bother with reproduction. That leaves a historically staggering segment of the population with the luxury of feeling Lost in the Cosmos.

An aside: the author regularly characterizes a modern view of sex as just another need, like eating and breathing. If that were true, I’d be dead. Sex is a want, not a need. Sometimes it is a very strong want that make us just as aggressive and stupid as the need to eat, but the cost of failure is not the same. There is a rather large section of the book devoted to society’s idea that sex is a need — he uses hypothetical space voyages to create small groups of people forced to live together for many years. He does a good job demonstrating that the assumption of sex as a need can lead to major trouble, but then leaves it at that, not considering it might be possible to construct a crew where there is simply no expectation that this “need” will be met. Captain Cook or Magellan might be able to give some hints on the subject.

(Although twice — twice! — in the latter parts of the book he added “other” at the end of his multiple-choice questions. Maybe he thought we were ready for it by then.)

Back to luxury: the fundamental schism between Walker Percy and myself. In his view, being lost is a bad thing, leading to man’s ability to cooly, intellectually commit genocide (genocides of passion or of ideals are, apparently, better genocides)…

Um, let me jump back to the sex for a second. He echoes Kierkegaard as saying that the Christianity is responsible for eroticising sex. Before Christianity, he maintains, sex did not have the magical quality it did after. It’s odd, because the non-idealized sex before Christianity seems to be benign, while the casual sex in the wake of Christianity’s decline is a root cause of the increasing violence of our society. I think I might have to read that part again.

So, right. Luxury. I think we live in a time when needs are so completely and invisibly fulfilled that we’ve forgotten what a need really is. Five hundred years ago, people might have wanted to understand their place in the cosmos; some guy might have had periods at night wondering “why did I say that?”, revealing a fundamental desire to understand his self and his place in the world, but then his belly growled and the youngest (of nine) kids woke up crying with a really scary-sounding cough, and he was too busy surviving to stop and ask why.

Why do we feel lost? Because we can.

Percy’s not here to argue with me, so on occasion I will have to do it for him. I promise I’ll do my level best not to make him a straw man, but to present his rebuttal as honestly as I can. Let’s not fool ourselves, however; his responses would be much more complete (and interesting) than the ones I’m putting in his mouth.

Percy: But by any empirical measure — drug use, war deaths, suicide — there’s something wrong here.

[Mmm.. that’s actually pretty close to a straw man. But my heart’s in the right place, I promise.]

Escalating war deaths are a large theme later in the book. I wonder, though, what you would find if you normalized against population. Certainly I’ll agree that war is much more dangerous for civilians these days, but Hannibal broke a record for one-day battlefield slaughter that was only surpassed in the last one hundred years. And now that I think of it, the civilians in Carthage were eventually completely wiped out. War sucks, and it has always sucked. There is one enormous difference, now, I’ll agree… the weapons we don’t use.

Drug use and suicide I put in the “luxury” column. People don’t kill themselves very often if it means their children will starve (of course I have nothing to substantiate that claim with). You want to prevent a suicide? Make that person responsible for someone else’s life. That does make Suicide an artifact of the technological age, and even traceable to individuals being trapped in world they can’t place themselves in. So there is some level of agreement between Percy and me.

Dang, how many paragraphs was that without talking about Christianity and sex? Too many! I think it is historically accurate to say that with the rise of the Judeo-Christian tradition (and don’t forget Islam!) sexual mores changed. It would be easy to conclude causality, but there was a more fundamental revolution going on, something that gave rise to centrally-controlled religions and a complex code of sexual behavior. Cities.

I must admit now that I have no evidence to back this statement up, and I have read nothing that supports it. It just sounds right to me. This is not scholarship; it’s some guy talking.

Cities (and increasing population in general) created an unprecedented social challenge; there was a need for a whole new, externally applied and enforced code of conduct to allow so many people to live in such a small space. Those rules also allowed for an economy to exist that made services possible.

Percy: But mysticism isn’t necessary to accomplish that.

Jerry: You’re right, but it doesn’t hurt. It’s harder to question a mystery.

So, cities. People living packed together. Religion changes, sexual mores change. Religion was the embodiment of the new set of rules, and rules governing sex were naturally included. They’re tied together, but ultimately they’re just two parts of the answer to the question “how can we all live together?” Two effects of the same cause.

Now, thousands of years later, life is changing again, and what has broken religion are democracy and prosperity. Central authority still exists, but it must suffer questioning, and react to the arbitrary fiats of the consensus. You can’t do that and maintain an aura of absolute moral clarity.

For “Christian Era”, I would substitute “Urban Era”. The Urban Era is ending. Cities will still be here, bigger than ever, but I think there is a fundamental change going on nonetheless, one tied to cities finally doing what they are supposed to do: ensure the prosperity and health of its inhabitants. Even the most awful of US cities is doing a good job of this, on a historical scale. (If the Nitrogen levels in the biosphere gets any worse, we’ll be back to stonings, but for now let’s enjoy it.)

I was afraid of this. I’m deep in and almost ready to get back to the first point I wanted to make. Maybe if I repeat the sentence it will be like the previous ramble never happened…

I was almost to the end of the book when I put my finger on one of the things that was troubling me. Percy said (once again), that the world sucks. Then I remembered a point he had made earlier, possibly in the optional reading. A “world” is something we each create, a crazy network of signs and associated memories. A world is inside your head. (Saying that, Percy’s statement that the only thing we can’t put into our world is ourselves becomes obvious; it would be recursive. The world is a subset of our selves.) So when he says the world is insane, that has nothing to do with me.

Granted, there is a substantial overlap between people’s worlds, or civilization could not exist. But differences, especially in interpretation, are not just good, but I suspect in the grand scheme (a machine Percy and I could argue about at length) those differences are necessary.

I’ll try to be faster with the second point. Sorry, but there has to be a second point.

Percy discusses at length coping strategies for souls trapped in this place. It boils down to, live with it, transcend it, or kill yourself.

Obviously the most interesting option is to transcend it. (Borrowing from my off-the-cuff statement above that I’m liking more an more, the transcendent state is when you can see that the world is a part of you, rather than the other way around.) Percy lists two and exactly two paths to transcendence: Science and Art. I think there are those capable of finding other paths.

The problem with this transcendent life is that except in a few rare cases it is temporary. A scientist cannot remain in the realm of his field forever; sooner or later he has to go to the grocery store. Percy claims, and I believe, that ‘re-entry’ is much more difficult for an artist. He lists eleven modes (still the numbering!) that an artist can use to come back to Earth after living in that place where art comes from.

Seeger: what the hell is this reentry stuff? From where? To where?

Percy: What do you do?

Seeger: I’m a writer.

Percy: I see. [Writers are an especially messed-up breed, by Percy’s reckoning. I just find them annoying.] Do you drink?

Seeger: Well, yes.

Percy: [checks off item two of eleven — item one is still hanging] Where do you live?

Seeger: Prague.

Percy: You don’t say. Where before that?

Seeger: Well, kind of nowhere. The road.

Percy: [Checks off item three. He looks me over. Number four is sex. He doesn’t bother to ask. Likewise he skips over returning home, living a lie, mysticism, and suicide. Skipping ahead he rules out numbers ten and eleven, being ‘saved’ and frontal assault. He’s got a feeling about number nine, however…] Tell me about your day.

Seeger: I work on my software and I write.

Percy: All the time?

Seeger: Pretty much. I hang with my brother sometimes.

Percy: So… this whole nasty world you accuse me of creating… It could be there and you’d never know it.

Seeger: Umm….

Percy: You are one lucky man. And yet, the characters you create, the best ones, live in a world of terrifying ambiguity, a place where there is no truth, no right, no wrong, just an individual alone and adrift, knowing his actions ultimately mean nothing.

Seeger: Exactly! Now don’t you see?

Percy: …

I think that’s what Percy would say. (Option nine is to never come down, to barricade yourself against the pesky real world and not come out. Optimistically, that’s been my mode. It’s either that or I’ve never left the ground. It sure feels like I’ve been up there.) Two of the options on how an artist can deal with the real world don’t require dealing at all. Suicide and monkhood. (I think Percy had a more elegant name for it.) Option one, the one skipped over, is actually the option of last resort — a well-adjusted artist performing at a high level without showing any unusual signs of social discomfort.

Which, finally, brings me to the very heart of the difference between Percy and myself. We agree that the human is newcomer to a landscape unlike any terrain Scopes’ monkeys had to deal with. Man is self-conscious, a monumental, catastrophic and very recent development. We’re together on all that. The crazy thing about mankind, the frightful thing, is that [Jerry hesitates in his writing, thinking there might be two things, but one is more frightful] is that he can ask why. Dogs don’t ask why. I bet whales don’t ask why. Even the most ardent gorilla-language people have backed off on our primate cousins asking the Big Question.

The Question fascinates me, particularly because I don’t think there’s an absolute answer. 42? It’s as good as any. Maybe that’s why people with Answers bother me; I don’t even understand the question, but I’m pretty sure there is no answer. Absolutes are all false.

King Arthur: Go find the grail!

Sir Jerry: But it doesn’t exist.

King Arthur: And…?

Sir Jerry: I’ll find it or die trying.

In the above scene, King Arthur is another part of my head that I understand even more poorly than most parts.

Man is a creature of contradictions, able to believe contradictory things, to hold them in his head at the same time. This is perhaps the triumph of symbolic thought, that complex systems can be reduced to an idea, and fundamentally conflicting ideas, in their reduced states, can be entertained simultaneously. Thus people who can read can vote to not teach evolution in their schools. It makes no sense whatsoever, but here we find the most fundamental trait of humanity. We don’t make sense.

Above, when Percy cited the characters in my stories, he pointed out that they were lost, searching for meaning where none existed, islands in an ocean they didn’t understand. (Maybe I’m embellishing on the words I previously put in his mouth.) It’s true. But…

The difference between Percy and me is that, ultimately, whatever words you want to wrap it in, he sees man as having a terrible dark side. I see man as having a terrible dark side that makes him interesting enough to justify his existence.

Not included in this episode: Consciousness and Evolution and Language and the Unnameable Self. Seriously, if you like thinking, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Lost in the Cosmos. I have mentioned more than once that this book pissed me off, but what some folks don’t catch is that that’s high praise. I said somewhere that I’d like to argue with Walker Percy over beers sometime, and if he wants to throw down I’ll be there. The thing is that jargon exists for a reason; in any given field it’s important for a word to mean a particular thing. The first half of the discussion would be a tutorial. After that poor Walker would discover that nothing I have to say is actually new.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Dislocated Life

Today I sent a message to a friend. “What country are you in?” I asked. After I sent that message, I stopped to think about it. I can have a conversation with someone and have no idea where on the planet he is. His location, for all practical purposes, is a number; the disposition of the atoms that carry around his consciousness has become secondary.

We are all (those of us with mobile phones, anyway) disembodied voices, placeless. Until recently, when you spoke to someone, you knew exactly where they were, within shouting range. Then the telephone came along, but if you didn’t know where the person was, you still knew where their phone was. Now a person’s location is more like a probability cloud, to borrow from physics. When someone talks to me, I am most likely in my neighborhood, and the farther afield you imagine, the less likely you are to find me there. Some people are a lot harder to guess, their cloud is much more diffuse.

Of course, if physics really applied, then the less certain we were of where we are, the more certain we’d be about where we’re going. I think it’s pretty safe to say that’s not the case.

But if my mobile phone is allowing me to transcend location, if the meaningful idea of who I am is projected by this placeless device, where am I during those (fairly frequent) periods when I’m not answering the phone?

My Beers With Angel

I first met Angel at the Little Café near home a few weeks ago. I was worried at the time that if he came in regularly it would be difficult to get any work done. If he is in the room, you know it. He is an energetic soul, and it is only with the greatest effort that he can leave me to work, when he is bursting with stories and ideas. He is able to keep that effort level required for restraint for perhaps thirty seconds before the pressure of all the ideas bottled up inside him pops his safety valve.

Tonight we met at the Little Café by agreement, so I had no expectations of writing. Tonight was for talking.

Angel is by any measure a good guy. He is sharp, no doubt about it — not only does he understand quite a few languages, he understands language. At one time he worked at a university in Peru, and gave most of his salary back to the university because, for him, there is nothing more important than education. Angel is an idealist and a shameless Christian.

I chose the word ‘shameless’ very carefully. Angel is not ashamed to be Christian, nor would he ever try to make anyone else ashamed for not being Christian. He believes in a higher authority is all. He is a philosopher, a lecturer, and a teacher. Much of what he says, I don’t completely agree with, but that’s OK. Part of that is that we agree that when people stop and listen to each other we can get along, even if we don’t agree.

Tonight over beers he said, “You can say ‘murder is bad’ and I will ask ‘why? Where is the authority that says so?’ He’s not arguing in favor of murder, he’s saying there is a reason murder is bad, and that the reason is bigger than humanity. Personally I don’t see the need for a higher authority, but that just made the conversation more interesting. It’s surprisingly hard to find people who are both passionate in their beliefs and tolerant of others.

In the last few days I’ve had fairly intense conversations with Greabeard and with Angel. In both cases part of the discussion is a search for a mutual definition of terms — making sure we’re using the same word in the same way. With Angel the process was much more rewarding. You can posit that this is the difference between argument and debate, but on that point I would have to disagree.

The reason I met up with Angel tonight is because he needs a place to crash for a few days until his new apartment is ready. This will be interesting indeed. My place looks like I’m still moving in (in a sense I am moving back into the room where Soup Boy slept), and there is overall a sense of disorder. I am, in my own small way, entropy’s little helper*. More than that, there will be a very large presence in my sanctuary for a few days. His need for a place is part of a large, complicated fur-ball of events that are his story to tell, not mine, but even being an uninformed bystander has been educational.

*On the entropy bit, it is important to remember that every time you achieve order you must expend enough energy to create more disorder somewhere else. By not moving the stack of boxes out of my living room, I am delaying the heat death of the universe. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

The first day of the year shorter than the day before

The days are long this time of year, and I like it that way. This far north it is common for people to go out before sunset and get home after sunrise. (Not for me, mind — I’ll leave that to the kids.)

I was in a chat with some piker pals yesterday morning, and one of them said “It’s all downhill from here,” which summed up my feelings as well. I may have mentioned it here, or perhaps in other writings in other places, but man is the only creature cursed with the imagination to ruin any good time. Three-legged dogs don’t think to themselves, “if I had another leg I could get to that ball faster.” No, they think “Ball! Ball! Ball! Whooeee!” When a cat is curled up in a sunbeam, it’s not thinking to itself, “too bad sunset’s coming,” the cat is just thinking, “waaaaaaaaaaarm.” Creativity and imagination are the bitter pill, as well as the source of hope.

Piker pal’s comment also reminded me of a story I wrote this spring. It’s not one of my better efforts (a bit too sticky-sweet for my taste), but it does describe how I feel about days like today. It’s been sitting on my hard drive in the junk pile, but here it is, for what it’s worth. The paragraphs about dark and light I wouldn’t mind working into a better story someday. The opening line is nice, too, but doesn’t fit.

The First Day of Spring

It started small, the way grand things do.

I was sitting on a park bench sipping my first beer of the afternoon, watching the people around me take advantage of the first truly beautiful day of the year. It was a false promise, I knew, a deception; more snowflakes would fall before winter was truly over.

Summer. It is not simply a segment of the year, not here. It is a gasp of air for the soul, before it is plunged back into the cold and the dark. Each summer seems shorter, the lift it gives diminished, and I know there will be a summer that is not a summer at all, and it will be my last.

A parade of cheery folks streamed past the bench where I sat. Some moved slowly — couples taking the same walk they had for fifty years — while others flashed past, here and gone in an instant — girls pushing themselves along on rollerblades, toned legs moving rhythmically, dodging dogs and children and grandparents.

“Need a refill?”

I looked up to see someone I vaguely recognized and I hoped she wouldn’t be insulted when I couldn’t remember her name. “Sure.” I reached into my pocket for some change.

She took my glass. “It’s on me,” she said. “I’m celebrating.” She turned and headed over to the beer window. I watched her walk and she seemed more familiar from that angle, as if she had walked away from me many times before. When she reached the line at the beer window she glanced back and caught me watching at her.

I wanted to inspect her as she returned, to see if that rang any bells, but that would have been difficult. Instead I looked out over the city spread below.

“Here you go,” she said, handing me my beer. “They raised the price this year.”

“I’ll get the next round.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She stood holding her beer, this woman who had been here before, who knew me, waiting for me to say something more. Finally she gave up. She took a sip and said with a beer-foam mustache, “Mind if I join you?”

I joked to cover my impoliteness. “It’ll cost you.”

“I’m sure it will.” She sat, not too close, not too far. “Na zdravi.”

Na zdravi” I raised my glass to hers, careful to make eye contact. Around here, toasting without looking the other in the eye is like a limp handshake. She met my gaze. Her eyes were green with golden flecks, and the corners were crunched just a little bit, like there was a smile just beneath the surface — the punch line to a joke she was enjoying telling.

“Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I hesitated, then remembered. “Celebrating what?”

The smile came a little closer to the surface. “It’s my first anniversary.”

“Ah.” I raised my glass again. “Happy anniversary.” It seemed a strange way to celebrate it, buying beers for guys in the park.

She sipped her beer and looked out on the city of a hundred spires. “This is the second-best bench in the park,” she said.

Whoever she was, she knew her benches, as well. “The lady with the plastic hat had already taken the best one when I got here.”

My benchmate smiled. “She’s back? Good.”

“She’s got a new hat.”

“I hope it’s ugly.”

“She’s outdone herself this year.”

She laughed, took a sip of her beer. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I thought for a minute. “Anniversary of what?”

“Of the first time I came up here. It was the first warm day last year. I started down by the river and hiked all over until I found myself up here.”

The first warm day. A sacred day, a day that doesn’t go on the calendar but is universally recognized. Not a national holiday, but a human one. “It’s my favorite day,” I said.

“Mine too. There’s so much promise; the air itself is telling us how wonderful the summer is going to be.”

I sipped. She was right, but it was also the first day I started to feel the summer slip away, sand though my fingers, lost and gone forever.

“You were on the other bench that day.”

“Was I?”

“Yeah. The sun was bright, but you were dark and brooding. You scared me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Then I caught you checking out my butt.”


“I love it up here. I came back every chance I got, and you were always here, on one of these benches, adding a little darkness to the day.”

My beer was empty. I wanted to go get another, or find any reason to walk away from this conversation, if only for a moment.

“You think too much,” she said.


“You think too much. Nothing is simple for you. When you watch the sun rise you think of night, but when the sun goes down, you know the day will follow. You prefer the dark, because only then can you contemplate light without sadness. But still you take pleasure in the simple things, like sitting on a bench on a sunny day. That’s what I like about you, that you can be both happy and sad at the same time.” She took my glass and stood. “Aren’t you going to ask me?”

I looked up at her standing over me, waiting, expectant. “What’s your name?”

The punch line. The smile that used her whole face. “Allison,” she said. “I’ll get another round. It’s our anniversary, after all.”

I followed her with my eyes and I thought of the bright days ahead, and the winter that must surely follow.

The soul-sucking power of Stuff

I have met many people who are owned by their possessions. I married one. (Before you get too carried away figuring names, you should know I’ve been married twice.) I watched the spirit be enslaved by atoms and I vowed not to fall under the same spell.

If you saw how much crap I have in storage, you’d know just how well I have done. In my defense, I gave away furniture, books, bags and bags of clothes, and anything else I could bear to unload. On an American scale, I chucked it in. I consider what is left the seed for the next home I own. Yeah, I know I’m rationalizing.

But there’s one thing, one physical object that I really should shed. Atoms. A machine. A car.

I sit here in Prague and extol the virtues of public transportation while clinging to a two-seater sports car. You have to cut me some slack; I crossed continents in that car, saw things, met folks, almost slid off the road and off a cliff in a Canadian hailstorm. And this is how things come to own you. They become containers of memories. Symbols.

Some are symbols of wealth or power; the Rolex doesn’t do much for me. The beautiful sports car that is too valuable to drive, I can do without. Some things are symbols of accomplishments of other sorts – having the largest collection of bobblehead dolls on the Eastern Seaboard requires a great deal of dedication, but in the end, I’ll pass.

There is the One Treasured Thing. Here is a sort of material possession (possession is a verb there) that I can appreciate. I envy people the One Treasured Thing. It is an item of such deep personal significance that it passes beyond symbolism and becomes identity. It is part of who you are. The One Treasured Thing is much more than a simple thing.

The test: I could always buy another car. Therefore it is not a One Treasured Thing. But still I am reluctant to let go. Someday, I conceitedly imagine, that road trip I took in that car will inform the next great American road story, and that particular car will become an American icon. I am perfectly aware how ridiculous that conceit is, but to deny it would be to devalue my one work under way that might actually qualify as literature.

In Prince George, British Columbia, I was waiting at a traffic light, top down to the Canadian summer, car packed to the gills. The guy in the next lane towered over me, and looked down into my packed-full little car. “You need a truck,” he said.

“No, I need less crap,” I wish I answered.

I don’t need a car, I need to believe. And so a thing has become symbolic, unreasonably so, and it has trapped me.

I am become Jer

Funkmaster G-Force pointed it out recently, and you can check for yourself. From Lindsay Wagner to Renee Zellwiger, chicks dig me.

Well, not me, per se, but some idea of me expressed in these pages. It is a carefully crafted and sloppily maintained me, an idea that’s got out of hand and is running amok through the blogosphere. It is, perhaps, slightly less artificial than the me you would meet if you were to stumble into the Cheap Beer Place right now, but only just.

This particular me, the one you know, is defined by words. Strings of symbols strung together to form ideas. And all of those smaller ideas coalesce into the grand idea of whoever it is I am. Though, maybe it’s not as grand as all that.

There have always been pen pals and others who come to know each other through words, but now we’re looking at something on a whole new scale. One of my NaNoWriMo ideas involves creating a completely artificial person online. But if that person is consistent and compelling, is there really any difference between that and who you’ve come to know here at Muddled Ramblings?

On a smaller scale, in the comments there are also new people – personalities that did not exist before but are just as real in this context. People with no birth certificates, no social security numbers, but in this place they exist and are known.

Of course, some of you have met me in the flesh, so you have two versions of me to compare. Perhaps there is some overlap, the intersection of the two Jerrys that can give some footing on who I really am. Whatever that means.

End of the Road

Location: 37,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean
Miles: That particular bit of information is currently buried in the baggage compartment

There are different kinds of road stories, I suppose. The good ones have some kind of transformation take place in the course of the narrative – perhaps the driver has gained some insight into his nature or the nature of the world around him. Occasionally they even get where they’re going. I imagine, compared to actual literature, that this narrative is one of those where you’re getting close to the end but there’s no real end in sight. As you read along you start to realize that there aren’t many pages left, and barring a jarring deus ex machina or a mighty epiphany (“Flossing is the answer!”) you’re going to be pretty pissed off when you get to the end of the book.

On the penultimate page our hero is hurtling across the heartland, thinking deep thoughts. You turn the page, and it just says, “And then he stopped.” You blink at the sentence, feeling gypped. “That’s it?” you ask the book, but the book just sits there, ignoring your ire. “And then he stopped.”

You think back over the stories within the narrative, looking for something you might have missed the first time. Sure, the individual bits are occasionally interesting, but what do they add up to? Is there a motion, a progression of any sort? Is there a grander metaphor? What if the road is life, the car is the soul, and the destination is death? That sounds poetic enough, but then what does “And then he stopped” mean in that context?

And then I stopped.

Not that I ever expected to find anything out on the road beyond a few stories to tell, which will probably make me insufferable in conversations for a while. (“That reminds me of when I was Calgary during the Stanley cup…” Oh, yeah. It’s not going to be pretty.)

The only thing more annoying about getting to the end of a book only to find it doesn’t end is discovering that there’s a sequel and nobody told you. You have to buy a whole nother stinkin book to see what happens next. But what if it doesn’t end there? How many volumes will you buy before you just throw your hands up in disgust?

And then I stopped, and got on a plane to Prague.

To be continued…