Tag Archives: question

106. Us, the busy universe

There’s always something. Always a need or an unfilled want. Always. You can’t escape it. We have stuff that we have to take care of constantly and forever. Time doesn’t stop for anyone or anything. Rich or poor, fat or thin, human is human, and part of being human is being busy, because everything is busy all the time.

Sometimes it blows my mind how occupied we have to be. Even when we stand still, we’re busy little machines. Sometimes I wish I could just pause it all and let the moment last a little longer, a purely stationary sensation. I’d like to actually do nothing for a while.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the sense of accomplishment as much as the next guy. It feels good to finish things. It feels good to work for something. But I don’t remember signing up for a life of work.

I don’t want to sound lazy. To be honest, none of us are lazy. How can we be? Right now we’re hurtling through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. We’re busy even if we’re just sitting down reading text off a computer screen. You think it’s easy to be a biological machine? We’re full of moving parts, and those parts need maintenance.

We have to take care of our bodies. We’re thrust into this world, given all the possibility for greatness, but required to monitor and care for our physical selves. That said, we ARE our bodies, not simply conductors, not puppeteers pulling strings. Part of life is being aware of your body and its process of birth, growth, and death. This thing doesn’t just drive itself.

And so I eat. I sleep. I don’t have a car or bike so I walk a lot. I look both ways before jaywalking. I have good hygiene habits, mostly. For this I still suffer from allergies and bad teeth. I have to tend to those concerns. We all do. The body does not sit idly even if we do. I have to shave. I have to suffer headaches. I have to stay hydrated. I’ll have to get health insurance, eventually. We’re machines from the get-go and all machines need constant maintenance, even the most well-oiled machines among us.

I’m not complaining. Get that thought out of your head right now. I love being alive. As Carl Sagan would put it, I’ve “humaned” from the universe and to the universe I give my greatest gratitude. Life is beautiful. It’s just… Mysteriously calculated.

Maybe this is a bit extreme, but imagine a world where everything was just fine how it was now. Imagine if nature in all its infinite wisdom came to the realization that everything was great. Why expand any further? Are we part of a giant masterpiece awaiting a final stroke of the paintbrush? Is there ever a final stroke? Like Valéry said, is the poem ever truly finished? At what point should we be content and take a break?

Thing is, I don’t think it can stop. There would be no NOW without an overarching cycle of Start and Finish. Even that idea of “Finish” is an illusion. Heck, even “Start” is an illusion. Things simply ARE, no matter what form they take. We imagine we are unique because we teach ourselves that this is true but when boiled down to the basics, we’re the same stuff as all stuff, we never “started,” we just continued from where we were to now in a different way, and there is no “finish line,” just another way of being the universe.

The universe cannot stand still because it knows nothing else. Everything is a circle, a cycle, a revolution, an orbit, a whirlpool. Everything is made so that it can spin apart and be made again. If we stopped things now, there’d never be anything new, and I think the universe likes to make new things.

I guess what I’m most baffled about is how puzzling it all is. There are no answers. No one knows what happens after we die. No one knows why the universe exists. No one will ever know. And this mystery is true about everything, not just us. I’m talking about the mystery of hummingbirds and galaxies. Are we just a swirling mass of recyclable space dust? Are we cogs in an even greater machine? Are we anything at all?

We don’t know.

But we act like we do. We act like there’s an answer waiting. The white light at the end of the tunnel. That’s good and all, but forgive me if it defies my personal logic that I have to wait until I’ve croaked to find out what it was all about. In acting like there’s an answer waiting, we have given in to the machinery metaphor. We are part of a greater plan. We are on a path. We are born this way.

We often compare ourselves to rats who expect cheese at the end of the maze. And yeah, I recognize that not everyone agrees with the rat idea. Rats are gross. I agree. But the cheese part is accurate. We have this great idea about what this cheese is. Even the most atheist of the rats sees the end of the maze, even if there’s no cheese there, there’s still a conclusion. For me, that’s not enough.

Maybe I’ve been listening to a little too much Carl Sagan lately, but that all feels so strange to me. We’ve never been separate enough from the universe to expect something next. What comes next is we keep being what we’ve always been, just through a different lens. We are the universe. We are a way for the universe to understand itself, like a mirror, and when we move on from this biological form, perhaps we’ll return as another mirror on another planet, or maybe we’ll just become the planet.

I think that’s kind of beautiful. Reminds me that our time as humans is temporary, but our role as the universe could be forever.

How it came that we personified that concept by anthropomorphizing an ethereal creator in charge of everything is a little silly. I like the idea. I mean, it still fits. God is the Universe, the Universe is God. Tomato, Tomatoh.

How we let religion turn into violence is baffling, a very human thing to do. I do not want to be associated with a religion that has killed anyone, and this is why I feel more connected to the universe I literally came from, not the creative impulse of an omnipresent being. We made religion then let religion turn us against each other. There is death in the universe, as well, but when a star dies it’s not because the star believed in a different universe. It’s because it was time for the star’s energy to become something else. When I die, I don’t want it to be because (or for) my belief. I want it to just be another moment in an infinite string of moments of being a small piece of my bigger self, the Universe.

Anyway, it seems like the only seed of truth that’s permeated the collective chaos that is our religious disagreement is to love and live true.

Love and live true. Yet, we complicate things.

We complicate humankind when there’s already so many other things to take care of first, not just our biological bodies but the fallout of forming society. From birth defects to taking care of our ill to feeding the hungry to stopping violence due to inequality. Major problems. As humans, we’re pretty screwed up.

You don’t see a herd of lions forming a jury to convict someone of vehicular lionslaughter.

Society is such a fascinatingly wonderful and equally terrible idea. It’s this partially agreed-upon role-playing experiment that persists on a daily basis by sheer luck alone. I know that’s edging away from what Carl Sagan would say about everything being stupid chance, but I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s absolutely no need for people to have conflict, yet we never seem to learn. We’re basically the universe having a temper tantrum with a part of itself it’s not very fond of. We’re the acne of the universe and we’re being popped like zits.

We can do better. We don’t have to be a blemish.

I think we’re stressed out. I think we’re taking ourselves too seriously. We’re complex enough without all this additional weight on our shoulders. We’re lucky. We got the cool brains of the animal kingdom and we’ve built rockets and vaccines and hot water faucets. We have kick-ass language skills. We’re goddamn awesome with these brains. And they take care of a lot of stuff for us without us even thinking about it. We eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired, but for the most part our brains have things under control. We forget that. We treat ourselves like we’re vessels carrying souls, not bodies being bodies. Imagine living internally rather than externally. Try to think with your whole body, not just your brain. It’s hard to do. We’ve removed ourselves from our bodies, removing ourselves from the universe itself (or at least attempting to), and it’s stressful to go it on your own, isn’t it? Here we are, humans, floating alone in the river of time. Rather than being part of the shore, we invent a figure to stand on the shore and judge us from afar. Why add that burden to an already skewed sense of reality?

I’m stressed out just thinking about it.

We’re using our brains in such strange ways. Sagan said we are a way for the universe to know itself. Yeah, we think about the universe a lot, but usually we’re just thinking about how our hair looks. I think we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the most bizarre things, like cats chasing lasers. Stranger still, we rarely take a step back to consider these things from other points of view, like the cat who knows it will never catch the laser but scurries after it whenever it flashes near.

This thought was about wondering why the universe doesn’t stop. This is a big question. Comparatively  it’s like asking the snail why it doesn’t go any faster. It’s restricted by the laws of its form. The universe is restricted in the same way. So are we. The universe can’t stop and I know this. Birth and death and renewal is all the universe knows. Anything that comes to be in its image will know this pattern. This is the way of things. I suppose what I’m wondering is whether or not the universe can control itself.

If we are the universe thinking about itself, than we’ve had plenty of deep thoughts like this. We’ve seen out into the universe, into ourselves, with telescopes and microscopes, and we’ve likely only scratched the surface of the complexity of it all. Maybe we just don’t know enough. Maybe we’re not going to be the species that gives the universe its answer. Maybe we’re not even close.

When–and if–we ever get there, I wonder if the universe will stop growing. I wonder if the cycle would stop. Kind of like how when you see the secret of a magic trick, you can’t stop seeing the hidden wires. Through all this violence and foolishness, however, I hope the end is worth it. I hope humanity turns all this bloodshed into a profound lesson, like a Tarantino movie with a Wes Anderson ending.

Imagine not worrying about your immune system. Or drinking enough water. Hard to do. We’re born into a biology we can’t control and we make the best with what we’ve got. We shouldn’t expect anything else, really. To be born is to die. There can’t be an alternative. If the universe didn’t work the way it did, it wouldn’t exist, not in the way we understand it now, that is. Our brains are galaxies and galaxies spin out eventually, too. We can’t picture a non-universe in the same way we can’t picture being a non-human. Who knows? Maybe the universe has headaches, menstrual cramps, growing pains, and self-esteem issues like the rest of us. We’re all one, after all, and that’ll never stop.

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84. Nothing

What is nothing?

It is difficult to picture nothing.

I’d argue that it’s our language that prohibits nothingness, for even having the language to shape our thoughts has birthed a tangible imagination. As wild as our thoughts are, they are contained by our language. Even the most abstract concepts like infinity, love, and motivation are wrapped tightly in vocabulary. Without langauge, what would ideas be? Feelings? I don’t know for sure.

Without language, it’s almost as if our existence ceases to be.

Well, okay, pain and hunger and the biological elements of our existence would continue. We wouldn’t be able to express how or why we eat or suffer or sleep, but we would do them anyway. Like robots, programmed.

With words, though, and the symbols we use for written language, we have removed the mystery. No longer do things simply happen, for there are words to explain all phenomena. There are even words to express the fact that one doesn’t know something. Even the lack of knowledge can be known. There are ways to express things we’ll never understand, which, in a way, is another way of understanding things.

An ability to say, “This is something I will never know,” is far more advanced than our ancestors, who viewed the unknown without knowing it was unknown, as an ant who comes across a leaf in its path and simply bounces off in another direction, not questioning the leaf, narrowly seeing the leaf, more observant of the fact that its forward motion was stalled, but not why or how or where the leaf came from.

We can no longer just be.

If only because we have the verb be.

Therefore, to imagine nothing is to imagine something. A dark space. A bottomless pit. Some other adjective, some other noun. We fill nothing with words, defeating the purpose of nothing, betraying one construct with another. We’re incapable of doing nothing.

Thanks to language, our thoughts have shapes and those shapes become words, sentences, theories. I’ve heard of people meditating to clear their minds to clear all thoughts, like someone dusting their entire house. I don’t buy it, though I’ve never tried it. Our brain’s are wired to acquire language. We’re designed to communicate. Even in total silence, our brain speaks.

I picture the meditating monk with a cleared mind like someone on a vast ocean, floating on a piece of driftwood, completely isolated from the outside world. Or perhaps floating in an endless vacuum. This, I imagine, is the quiet and tranquility they seek for whatever spiritual purpose they desire. Except they are still a noun, performing a verb.

I’m not trying to say that meditation is futile. I think it helps to quiet the vocabulary machines inside our brains that constantly, unconsciously  create language to explain the world around us. Closing our eyes, we see dark and we think quiet and we feel calm and we hear our heartbeat. But there is always something. There is never nothing.

So don’t feel bad about those lazy days when you do nothing. Don’t ever feel like you’re worth nothing.

It’s impossible.

78. Credit limit

$6,500.

That’s how much I’m worth.

At least, that’s how much I’m worth to the credit card company. They’ve upgraded me. Doubled my retail value, actually. Without making any mention of it to me, they went ahead and lifted the spending cap of my credit card. This also happened to lower my monthly payment, which I can’t complain about. The fact remains, they’ve still got a cap on me. Only, it’s a little higher now than it was two weeks ago. What did I do differently? Why the special treatment? What is my bank beefing up my ego for?

I’m instantly suspicious.

I can’t honestly say that I’m not touched by the gesture. It feels good to be commended for one’s commitment and consistent payments. I appreciate having an “Oh Shit Cushion,” in case of emergencies. It saved my ass when I was abroad and I guess the credit company appreciated all those airline ticket charges. Was this some kind of Welcome Home gift?

Thanks for the confidence boost, but I can see through your schemes. You noticed that I hadn’t been using the card lately. You were getting jealous. But you can’t be mad at me because I treated you so well earlier this year. Remember Antalya? That trip to South Korea? So instead you go out and get your hair done, you buy some nicer clothes, you practice batting your eyelashes, and you come back to me at twice the limit, practically begging me to use you again.

No thanks, Visa.

I’ve got enough baggage leftover from my time with you. Thanks for the memories, but once I pay you off, we’re through.

68. Shampoo

Every other day, I’m putting this colorful syrupy scented substance in my hair, scrubbing it diligently into every last strand as if my life depended on it. I scrub without question. Shampoo is just one of those things I’ve accepted as reality. In the same way we use toothpaste to keep our teeth in our mouths, I imagine shampoo is what keeps the hairs on my head.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

What does shampoo do? We all know it cleans your hair. Or something. It takes the grease away, gives hair its usual bounce. But how? And why? Shampoo is built of chemicals trained in the art of dirt and oil removal. But what are those chemicals? What serendipity led to the discovery that these chemicals were such good chums with human hair? Who stays up late trying to figure out hair moisturizing formulas?

I’m not trying to sound paranoid or anything, but I’ve been shampooing for twenty-five years and I’m just now realizing that I’ve been playing around with chemicals I don’t understand the whole time. Right next to my brain.

This is not leading to a boycott against shampoo, either, I simply I feel like half the stuff on the shampoo INGREDIENTS list is made up.

Other than water, shampoo also contains (among other ingredients): Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Dimethiconol, Carbomer, Glycol Distearate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, and Citric Acid.

What the hell is “Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride?”

To quote Wikipedia, it helps to “improve the ease of combing.”

Duh.

I guess some of these big words are fancy ways of saying “cocunut extract” or “vitamin so-and-so.” You know scientists. They like tongue twisters. The ingredients aren’t as complex as they appear to be, although it’s not exactly something you can moonshine in your bathtub or cook up in an RV. Leave this to the professionals, Breaking Bad.

I’ve learned that the use of shampoo originally came about through head massages. Early shampoos were less concerned with the actual hair and more concerned with the feel-good results of a nice scrubbing. The smell of a shampoo was more important than its effects on dandruff and split-ends. I’m a fan of the “Ocean Breeze” aroma, myself.

The point is, shampoo gets a free pass, but I never stopped to wonder why. I’ve allowed dozens of different shampoo brands to navigate my hair follicles, and I never bothered to ask for identification. What the heck is this stuff? I was raised on shampoo. I never knew of any alternative, save for a head of greasy hair and an open invitation for a lice invasion.

I’m not saying we put our shampoo dependency on hold. I love it when my hair smells nice. But how it works and where that sweet aroma comes from, I have no idea. I’m just doing what I’m told.

50. Not knowing things

I honestly couldn’t even tell you how a pencil works. There’s a sliver of mineral called graphite inside of a hexagonal wooden stick, that much I understand. But how that leaves a trail of legible markings on paper is beyond me. It just happens and we accept this. Don’t get me started on ballpoint pens.

I don’t know how vinyl records work and the idea that human voice is somehow trapped in the grooves of a large flimsy disc is more mystifying than all the satellite and shuttle launches in the history of mankind.

If you ask me how computers work, I could probably come up with some half-truth crap to fill your ears with, ending the monologue with a reference to binary code or The Matrix, but in reality the fact that I can press buttons and make words appear on a screen is like all the mystery of childbirth and the universe combined.

I’m not sure how car engines work, though I’ve seen diagrams. I think I understand how airplanes work, yet being inside of them at cruising altitude still feels like a sin against gravity that soon we’ll all be punished for. I don’t understand refrigerators or light bulbs or vacuum cleaners. I’m far removed from the system (and logic) of nuclear weapons. Automatic doors still feel like they’re futuristic. There is a part of my brain that can fathom time travel, but I am still baffled by electric toothbrushes.

I understand zippers and toilets. I know how boats work, I think. Film photography makes sense, as does air conditioning, microwaves, and sewing machines. I can grasp the idea of the human heart and nervous system, but I’m still a bit fuzzy when it comes to explaining how violins make music.

There is plenty in this world left to be discovered. As Bill Nye once said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Be curious. Ask questions. Do research. If you want to know how something works, look it up.

My best advice comes from a game that my college roommate and I used to play on lazy afternoons. Open Wikipedia. Find the “random article” button. See how many pages you can go through before you stumble on something familiar. The point of the game? See if you can find that familiar topic in less than ten clicks.

Here’s an example. Know about any of these things?

  1. Bombing of Bremen in World War II
  2. Pratap Malla
  3. Cancún International Airport
  4. Lethrinops longimanus
  5. White Clay Creek
  6. Haemateulia
  7. Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University
  8. University Philosophical Society
  9. Henrietta Independent School District
  10. Gridley Mountain

If not, then it’s time you learn more things. Life is too short and the universe too big. We’re meant to acquire knowledge. I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with all the knowledge, but if you’ve got a 200-gigabyte hard drive, you don’t just use 10 gigs and call it quits. You fill that sucker up.

1. How hard can it be?

How hard can it be to have a thousand thoughts?

We have thoughts all the time. We’re thinking when we dream and we think as soon as we wake up. We think about breakfast, have thoughts about our lives, think about work or school or play. We share thoughts with friends and we keep some of them, most of them, private from the world. We think about problems and happy memories and responsibility and relationships. We think about thinking. You, you’re thinking as you read this, using that noggin of yours to do wonderful, amazing feats without even, ironically, thinking about it.

So how hard can it be to start a blog where all I do is write a thousand thoughts?

Well, I don’t want these to just be any old thoughts. I want the good stuff. I want the stuff that causes debates at the family gathering, the thoughts that friends discuss on rooftops at three in the morning after two sixers of cheap beer beneath the satellites. I want thoughts that keep you up at night. I want to write about the ideas and feelings and fears and theories that plague us, open-ended and maleable concepts that deny us easy answers like fish that give the fisherman a good chase rather than chomping down on the first reasonable piece of bait in the pond.

So how hard can it be?

Where do those thoughts come from? Life, I suppose. From conversations with strangers and the random pages of a book I’ve never read. From historical speeches and political mishaps and scientific breakthroughs. From the headlines and the word of mouth. From us, from you, from the spiraling whirlpool of images in my head.

It might be hard, it might be easy.

But here are a thousand thoughts, by Chris Fryer.