Tag Archives: thoughts

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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94. Santa Clause

The older I get, the more I want to believe in Santa Clause. I find myself fascinated by the magic and charm of the old North Pole legend. Long removed from my childhood wonderment, the idea of a chubby man in a red suit popping presents down my chimney has since evolved into a respect for tradition and storytelling. I think it’s healthy to believe in at least one fantastic element in your life.

Obviously Santa is not real. He’s a marketing campaign gone viral. He’s a holiday season goldmine for children’s movies. He’s a figment of our imagination impersonated by actors in shopping malls.

And many will say he’s a symbol of capitalism. He’s racist and classist. He’s a lazy bastard who uses slave labor to create cheap toys. Not to mention, he’s a crafty criminal who breaks into our houses. Who knows what untold abuse those reindeer go through.

Yet we still leave out the cookies.

For those who follow along with the Santa Clause tradition, I commend you. Not only does Santa make a good tool for behavior modification around the holiday season, but it gives children a taste of real-world fantasy. While they’ve certainly read and seen their fair share of magic and wizardry, they rarely get to actually live it. Santa brings mystery into their lives. For a few years, they believe in the possibility of a fairytale.

Eventually that wears off and the wrapping paper repeats and the kid recognizes Mom’s handwriting in Santa’s signature. Then children often rebel against the idea, revealing the truth to their younger siblings and friends. We all act out against those who betrayed us.

It wasn’t until I’d long abandoned the idea of Santa that I recognized the other value of old Saint Nick. It was the story of him that I liked. It was the idea that such a tradition could be born, akin to the old tales of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, and that they could acquire a life of their own and truly thrive. These are stories that somehow feel engrained in the soil of the country, that grow with each new generation, giving grandiose, yet simplified explanations of traditions and history.

Santa served as a neutral character in comparison to the religious weight of the holiday, a figment of cultural imagination that we could all believe in without going to church. He didn’t preach or spread gospel around. He just wanted people to be merry. He wanted people to share with each other. He wanted families to come together. He wanted children to write wish lists and learn that being good was usually all it took to make wishes come true. It wasn’t about devotion, it was about believing in the dream.

Santa is a part of our cultural history now. He is a holiday creation, the bringer of gifts. He might’ve gone through a few revisions, but the story remains the same. As I get older, I remind myself to keep the tradition alive. I remind myself to believe.

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.

80. Thinking

A thought.

You’d think it would be so easy. To have one, I mean. To fire a synapse, to feel inspired, to put words to text on a screen and convey an idea. A coherent thought. Something relatable, yet through a lens you never considered before. To be unique. To put a twist on an old trope. To stand on the shoulders of giants and express what you see. Unimaginable worlds. Unbelievable ideas. It seems like we’re all always on the verge of the next great thought.

It’s hard.

Thinking is hard.

Honestly, most of the time, it’s a curse. To think is to think twice. To think is to empathize, to relate, to grasp, to question, to imagine, to understand, to mistake, to be disappointed and to be elated. To think is to use an internal organ for external constructs.

To quote a friend of mine, “It’s all just a thought when you think about it.”

We are thoughts. We are thoughts within thoughts within thoughts. Our conception is an idea. Our birth, to others, is a memory accessible in a thought as easily as we recall yesterday’s weather. Our entire lives, in biographical form, are condensed to a singular thought between two hardcovers, perhaps written by someone we’ve never met. Everything we do, make, say, or hope for is a thought. We are only aware of ourselves because we think.

Otherwise, I imagine a life like that of an ant’s.

We scatter about without direction, wandering until we bump into something that, for some reason, we feel like chewing on. We might even take a piece of it back to our nest. Maybe. Who knows? All we know is that this object demands our attention and we have the digestive system to make good use of it. Then some giant bipedal creature comes along and smashes us dead because we interfered with their weekend picnic. The end.

We’re not ants. But, in the end, we’re not much different.

Luckily (?) we have this thing in our skulls called a brain. It gives us this remarkable power to not only think, but to do things with those thoughts. An ant thinks. Surely. It thinks on the primal, survivalist level. On our end of the spectrum, we take thoughts and create governments and artistic masterpieces, or we solve problems or we commit heinous crimes. We are not as vulnerable to the whims of our biology as much as an ant, thanks to philosophy, thanks to math and science, thanks to religion. We have made ourselves bigger than ourselves. We have thought it so.

Ants have biological hierarchy. A system from nature. We have gridlocked interstate highways and space travel. I don’t think nature ever intended one of its species to leave the atmosphere.

I am proud of our brain. I am proud to be a thinker.

But it is not easy.

Thinking means that we carry doubts and hopes and fears and responsibilities. Thinking can be dangerous. Thinking can be exhausting, especially when it seems like we can never turn it off. Even drugs and alcohol permit some level of thinking, albeit tainted with lowered inhibitions and unjustifiably brilliant hypotheses.

The point is, it’s okay not to know what to think sometimes.

It’s okay to not understand something, to not dwell on the meaning of life, to not analyze every little event of your existence. It is okay to not have answers. It’s okay to stop thinking now and again (hard to do, I know) just to give that muscle in your skull a little rest. We think at work. We think about our paychecks. We go to school to think some more. We think about family and friends and football teams and phone numbers. We think in the short term, the long term, in terms we haven’t even defined.

We think so much. Too much.

Eighty thoughts into a thousand, maybe this seems like a defeatist entry, but fear not. The thinking will continue. The only thought that came to mind tonight was the thought of the difficulties of thinking, the pressures of thinking, the curse and pleasure of thinking.

I won’t stop. I can’t. You can’t either.

We’re not ants, after all.

77. Scam poem

Nearly the victim of a scam, I started thinking about the idea of a scam. It’s a lie with bad intentions. It’s a dirty trick. It’s a way to fool people into giving you something on pretense, or worse, to get you involved with something you really ought to stay out of. Some people are great at scams.

To take a line from Tommy Boy, a good conman could “sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman wearing white gloves.”

Luckily, most scams are attempted by amateurs, so either their blatant gimmicks or their poor grammar skills will reveal their true plans before any harm can be done.

When I applied for a tutoring job, I got a rather strange e-mail reply. The English was terrible. The tone was secretive, which raised a lot of red flags. The writer also made it sound like his “daughter” was a mail-order bride. Or some child in a trafficking ring. It just didn’t sound right at all. Majority opinion found this to be a scam, so I reported it, then decided to do something useful with it.

I made a poem, using word-for-word excerpts from the e-mail.

From trash comes art.

SCAM POEM

Dear Tutor

My daughter

Teach her as soon as possible

Your experience and qualification

Made her feel more happy and comfortable

I am planning that you will be teaching

The {English} Subject

Teach her during the week

I want her to study more

What she need to know

When she arrive

I want her to improve morally

Quiet, intelligent, obedient

She love to dance

I will be paying you

I will also pay the Guardian

The Guardian would bring her down

You receive the payment

Remit the balance to the Guardian

Can I trust you with my daughter?

And the rest fund to be remit?

Send information as its been requested

So it can be mail out on-time

You will teach her good academics

And some moral respects

She can be good to their self

In the future

And the economy

I would be glad

I wait your full information

So I can proceed

Regards

Roger

76. Behavior

“Our main project this semester,” said my high school psychology teacher, “is changing your behavior. That’s what this is about. Human behavior. The why, the how, and the when of human behavior. We’re going to be looking at motivation. Intrinsic, extrinsic. We’ll be looking at what Carl Jung and Skinner and Freud tell us about behavior. Is it innate? Is it nature or nurture? Something we can teach? We’ll explore dreams. We’ll explore the subconscious. The id and the ego, desires and needs and wants. I want us to understand, to explore, and to expand our private models of the world.”

Mr. Underwood loved his stuff. He was a man uncomfortable with his height and so he slouched, bent over a podium, his hands gesturing wildly even when he wasn’t speaking. He ranted. He told bad puns. He was a little bit crazy. He name-dropped famous psychologists and researchers like they were old friends. He chose people at random to answer questions that even grad school students would stumble over.

I unfortunately spent the class doodling or writing the lyrics of Brand New songs in my binder.

Looking back, I realize how much I missed out by not paying attention in Mr. Underwood’s class. I chit-chatted with the girls. I bullshitted my essays. I never did the reading. I know as much now about Carl Jung now as I did then. It’s sad, really, how certain important bits of knowledge simply passed right over my head. In many classes. Here I am, years later, wondering why I can’t answer eighty percent of the questions on Jeopardy.

Obviously there are different types of knowledge.

Still, if there’s one class I really wish I could take again, it would be my high school psychology class. And if there was one specific project in that class that I wish I’d taken better advantage of, it was the one that Underwood called, “Five Behavioral Changes.”

Basically, you’re in charge of your behavior. Sure, there are outside factors that play a role, but in the end it’s your choice to behave or feel a certain way at any given moment. What Underwood wanted us to see was that altering common behaviors in your daily life can have an astounding effect on our mental health and your perception of the world. The assignment was to pick five new behaviors and to actively incorporate them into your life for a few weeks, then write about the results.

Something really beautiful could’ve happened.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I tried listening to only classical music while driving
  2. I tried eating only fruits and vegetables for a week
  3. I wrote controversial statements in chalk on the sidewalks around school

The immediate problem with my participation level is the fact that I only did three things. Not five. So for whatever concluding write-up I had to do about the experience, two of my five behavior changes were totally made up. Being a fan of fiction, the bullshit came easily, but the fact remains that I was only hurting myself by being lazy.

The classical music led to boring drives (no offense, Mozart). The fruits and vegetables left me hungry. The controversial chalk statements washed off in the next day’s rain before anyone could see them. The idea was for people to write their own statements on the sidewalks, too, with the pieces of chalk we left behind. Didn’t happen.

I could’ve picked up an instrument, I could’ve volunteered at a homeless shelter, I could’ve gone on a hitchhiking road trip across America. I could’ve really produced some positive changes. Who knows?

The point is, I never forgot the assignment, even if I overlooked it at the time. Change five things about your behavior. What would you change? Try cooking at home more often. Try reading a book without reading the back cover. Take more walks. See what happens. Do it for a week. Do it for a month. Soon enough, you’ve created change. What’s the saying, that it takes thirty days to create a new habit? Well, give it a shot.

I think the assignment was a great idea. I wish I’d seen that earlier.

Thanks, Mr. Underwood, for the inspiration.

And sorry for talking so much during class.

75. Regret

Guest Thought from Alison McClelland

:::

A friend of a friend was telling me a story a while back and it made me think about how much we miss out on when we do or don’t do something for fear of what other people might think.

She and her husband flew to Las Vegas for one weekend and for one reason. Star Trek Experience. A noble reason, I might add.

Well, being that I’ve experienced the Star Trek Experience I know there’s a place called “Quark’s Bar.” Evidently, there’s quite a spectacular beverage served there called “Warp Core Breech.” They ate lunch at Quark’s where she decided not to order said beverage as it was “too early” in the day. She decided they would return that night and order the drink then, ignoring prompts by her husband to disregard the “too early” rule.

Ah, I sense you have already guessed the ending of this tale.

They returned only to find Quark’s bar CLOSED to the public for some special event and they were leaving the next morning.

Now, mind you, they flew to Vegas just for the full experience. Naturally, she felt jilted and full of regret. Tough to live with that forever when you live 700 miles from aforementioned libation.

It brings a Hellrung’s Law to my mind, “if you wait…it will go away.”

So, my advice to you… if you want it, drink it. It has to be happy hour somewhere on planet earth at any given time. Just tell people you’re on Zimbabwe time.

If you really like it, buy it. It’s only money. You can’t take it with you and do your kids really deserve to inherit everything?

And lastly, if it makes you happy, do it.

Listen, livers regenerate (or so I’m told) and credit cards can be paid off, but remorse is like genital warts. Sometimes you feel great and then it flares up and it’s a real pain in the nuts.

74. Butterflies

I’ve changed history.

Not the history we know of, but the history of our future. Everything that happens from this moment on, it’s all because of me. I can’t tell you where it’s all leading. No one knows that. But regardless of how things turn out, let me be the first to apologize for taking all of our fates into my young hands.

I was twelve when it happened.

Recess time. Elementary school. Sunny day. Out on the field. I can still smell the freshly cut grass. I’m there with my buddy, Joey, and we’re having the time of our lives, being young and away from our desks.

The butterfly was orange, with black around the edges of its wings.

Beautiful.

To be fair, butterflies usually only live for weeks or months at a time (at most, a year). This butterfly could’ve been close to the end of its days, anyway. Alternatively, the thing could’ve been fresh out of the cocoon. Either way, the butterfly didn’t deserve to die.

Did you know that butterfly wings are comprised of tiny colored scales?

I’d like to grab a quotation from Wikipedia here:

Butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Some also derive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, decaying flesh, and dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt.

I’m not going to defend my murder, but what if I killed the sort of butterfly that derives nourishment from “decaying flesh?” That thing could’ve been carrying diseases. I might’ve prevented some kind of viral outbreak at my elementary school.

Okay, Okay. You’re right. That’s a lame excuse. We all know that butterflies never hurt anybody.

I killed it. That’s the truth. I admit it.

I saw it fly by and something inside of my twelve-year-old brain decided to give chase, like a cat catching sight of a red dot, and I pursued it across the field. I was fixated. Homing in. I was so enthralled by the chase that I didn’t know what to do when I caught up to it. Like the cat that doesn’t know what to do with the live mouse in its jaws.

So I stepped on it.

Did you know some butterflies take the toxins from plants to use for themselves? Clever little creatures.

However, any toxin that orange beauty possessed on its fragile wings did no good against the rubber sole of my sneaker. Physically, it felt like nothing, like stepping on a leaf. Emotionally, it felt like I’d just smothered a dozen kittens in a pillow case.

When my foot crunched down and the butterfly vanished from sight, I knew that I’d done an immeasurable wrong. Darkness fell over me like a solar eclipse. An ominous shiver followed, a slight jolt, as if the soul of the butterfly had passed through my body and whispered, “You’ll regret that.”

An alternate universe was born then.

Sorry.

You know the theory of the butterfly effect. Man goes back in time, steps on a butterfly, a small occurrence with enormous consequences on the future, usually for the worse. I’m that man.

Not to say I’m a time traveler. Gosh, I wish.

But who’s to say the effect isn’t the same? A butterfly doesn’t ever deserve to die of anything but old age. I’ve never met a bug more deserving of a healthy, stress-free existence. Butterflies are flying works of art. I love the crap out of butterflies. Always have. So to take one out in the savage manner like I did, you just know that the universe was pissed.

Who knows what would’ve been different if I’d spared that butterfly?

I know no other guilt bigger than this one. Trust me when I say, regardless of your opinion of creating an alternate universe, the cost of killing a butterfly is at least a hundred negative karma points, and that’s a hard debt to crawl out of. I’ve been chipping away at that debt my entire life. I might as well have the truth tattooed to my chest like the guy from Memento: BUTTERFLY KILLER, because I’m never going to outlive that one.

Sorry Butterfly.

Sorry Universe.

73. Jaywalking

In our cities of right corners and straight lines, we’ve been trained to fear the jaywalker. We’ve been taught that crossing a street outside of the dotted lines is a sin against order. Jaywalking is chaos. Jaywalking is the tiny crack that splits the boulder of society apart, and so we are trained to obey the RED HAND and we do not cross until told.

The strange thing is that we’re also taught to “look both ways before crossing the street.” I’m unclear why we’d be given such irresponsible advice when it’s the MAN and the HAND who decide when we cross. Why would we bother to look in either direction if these symbols are looking for us? If we look and we see that the road is clear, that doesn’t mean we can cross. We must wait for permission, lest we’re aiming to destroy the systems of men.

About 70,000 pedestrians are injured or killed in collisions with a motor-vehicle every year.

Sure not all of those people are jaywalkers, but plenty of them are, and if they’d only stuck to the rule, these grisly statistics would shrink. Roads are made for cars. Sidewalks are made for people. That place where roads and sidewalks meet, that’s where people are supposed to cross.

It’s simple.

For those who stray from the guidelines, expect to be struck dead, permanently wounded, or heavily fined. In some countries, such as Singapore, jaywalking is punishable by jail time, but usually you’ll find yourself paying a hefty fee for putting yourself (and others) at risk. And for what? To look cool in front of your friends? To rebel against the right angle? To stray from the rigidity of society?

Did you know that jaywalking was made illegal by efforts from the automobile industry? Makes sense. Once cars filled the roads, people were slow to acclimate, and pedestrian-caused accidents were rising quickly. The automobile folks wanted to make sure that people and cars remained segregated. So long as cars weren’t driving on sidewalks, people weren’t supposed to be walking on roads.

Then came the jaywalkers.

People who said, “I’ll cross wherever and whenever I want.”

I get it. I do. I understand.

You’re not one to blindly follow directions. You see jaywalking as an invasion of your rights. In some ways, perhaps it is. If your destination is across the street and you’ve looked both ways, then why not? I mean, why listen to any rules at all, so long as the coast is clear? I bet you run red lights if no one’s coming, too. I bet you don’t wash your hands if there’s no one else in the bathroom to judge you.

Jaywalking is a gateway crime. If you cross one street illegally, what other streets will you be willing to cross?

The truth is, I’m a jaywalker. It’s true. While I was living abroad, I jaywalked all the time (heck, in Istanbul, the stray dogs are professional jaywalkers, so you come to trust their judgement). There is something silly about being restricted to crosswalks and countdown timers, especially when there’s absolutely no car coming. Coming back to the States, I found that my jaywalking habits had worsened. I’m downright reckless.

The point is, if we’re going to fight the structures of society, we need to look both ways. See both sides of the structure before stepping foot in a direction we may not wish to go. Jaywalking might seem like a dumb law (and honestly it’s hardly enforced), but it has some undeniable footing in logic. Next time you feel like breaking the rules, consider the rules, consider where they came from, and if the coast is still clear, then by all means, cross away.

72. Ghosts

I’m waiting, Mr. Ghost.

I’m waiting for a cold draft, an omnipresent whisper, and a flickering lamp. I want some footsteps upstairs when the house is supposed to be empty. I want doors left ajar that I’m sure I closed when I left. I want noises in the basement. I want the dog to start acting funny, barking at empty corners and shadows. All I’m asking for, Mr. Ghost, is a little sign.

Send a rocking chair into a frenzy. Slam a few windows. Leave eerie messages on my bathroom mirror.

I want to believe in you.

Your existence means a lot to me. I don’t care if you’re the friendly spirit of a child or a wicked poltergeist spawned from the soul of an executed mass-murderer. Just prove it. Show me that the afterlife exists. Show me that some of you still linger. Set fire to a ouija board or raise skeletons from their graves. I don’t care what you do, just do something.

Show up in the background of a photograph. Appear in a hallway mirror.

I can’t even begin to explain how much that would change things for me. Imagine, a real ghostly encounter. Sure, I’m not going to lie and say it wouldn’t be unsettling at first, but wandering into a haunted hotel to find a ballroom full of ghosts wearing masks would really make my day. I’d have so many questions for them.

Mr. Ghost, I have to ask, is it cold in the afterlife?

Do you have to remain in human form?

Which senses do you still possess?

Why do you think you’re still here?

Please, I hope I wouldn’t be intruding with these questions. I’m only curious, you know. I want you to know I’ve been a firm believer all my life, only I’m reaching that point now where I’d like some reason to keep the belief alive. Some shred of proof. A little evidence to whet my ghostly appetite.

Not long ago, the ghost of a dog entered my room while I was lying down to sleep. It huffed into my ear with the impatience of a dog that wants you to throw the ball already. The sound was so real that I spun around to be sure I wasn’t about to befriend a phantom Lassie, but the room was empty.

Since this was such a minimal encounter, it’s tough for me to consider it a legitimate experience. Might’ve just been a creak of the old floorboards or a sound from out the window. Still, that ghost dog huff got my hopes up.

If you’re really out there, Mr. Ghost, please don’t hide.

I know it must be weird, being dead and all.

All I want is to see you at the end of the pier vaguely through the mist, or riding the carousel of an abandoned carnival, or hovering over your old grave. I won’t call the Ghostbusters. I won’t freak out. I just want to know you’re there. And I’m guessing you could use a friend.

71. Headaches

When I first got a headache and lived to tell the tale, I was about eleven or so. I’m assuming I’d had a few before this, too, but this is my first conscious memory of a headache, at least. I’m sure teething as a baby was a hoot.

Anyway, I’m eleven years old and here comes this gnarly wasp sting of an ache in my head, like someone spilled a bucket of xenomorph acid over my brain and smeared it around with sandpaper.

Ouch.

The thing is, headaches have nothing to do with the brain. Your brain has no pain receptors. It’s like a duck in the rain. The pain just slides right off. Your brain is the Chuck Norris of internal organs.

Sure, the brain is the one that registers the pain as happening, but it’s only doing its job. In all fairness, the brain is not to blame.

So what made my eleven-year-old self cry to his momma about an outbreak of black plague in his frontal lobe? Why did it feel like a million snakes just mistook the back of my left eye for the rear-end of a feeder mouse?

I’ll tell you why.

Muscle contractions.

Muscles tighten around the skull like skinny-jeans on a wet hipster. This is usually caused by stress, though the causes can range from bad luck in the gene pool to overdosing on pain medication. This is how headaches are born. You’re basically tightening a vice over your own skull and the pain receptors–not on the brain, but blood vessels and the such beneath the flesh and skull–don’t appreciate the intrusion. Hence, the headache.

At eleven years old, I thought my brain was about to Mount. St. Helens all over the ceiling.

Rubbing the scalp lends temporary support, but the war wages on. Despite all the pressing and the kneeding and the praying, the pain resumes like a bad sitcom past its prime. You just want to find out it was all the dream of a mental patient already and move on.

I mean, seriously, headaches must’ve been an idea concocted by some madman in a straight jacket. Someone who wanted to shut down cognitive abilities to mute the voices in his head. A headache is bested only by a toothache in my list of the human body’s most idiotic design choices.

Why make the brain so susceptible to such vulnerable pain receptors? Stress headaches? Are you serious? We get migraines from thinking too much?

What’s the point?

That’s like punishing students for getting too many good grades. Talk about negative reinforcement. How about instead of giving us a cap on how much bullshit we can handle at once, evolve and make some room for the multitasking, technology-based, fast-paced lifestyles of the modern human. Maybe if we weren’t stalled by migraines, we’d reach the mental capacity to actually solve a global issue or two.

This is what I think about whenever I have a headache.

It’s my body saying, “The brain and I agree that you’re asking a little much of us recently and we’d rather you just settle downIn a heap of terrible pain.”

I have a formula:

1 Ibuprofen = The headache has found me. I can feel it vaguely, more like a whisper, like Sauron seeking Frodo in his dreams. Usually I take one to quiet the Dark Lord and no big fuss is made of it. Headache evaded.

2 Ibuprofen = Hell hath arrived. Cancel all your plans. Hate all your friends. Speak only in broody grunts. This is not nearly as painful as childbirth, though being a man, you’ve got nothing else to compare this to.

3 Ibuprofen = If I could physically pull open my skull and remove the headache with a pair of child’s safety scissors, I would do it, but since I’m all out of safety scissors, a trio of Ibuprofen will be the next best thing.

4 Ibuprofen = Honestly, I’ve never gotten a headache this bad.

I can’t say I’ve ever had a migraine, which is where 10 or 20 Ibuprofen may make a dent. Even that, by the sound of it, is comprable to shooting a t-rex with Nerf darts. From what I hear, migraines are like supernovas made of broken glass erupting repeatedly inside your every synapse. It does to your brain what Y2K was supposed to do to our computers.

I’ve only had to deal with the 7-pointers on the headache Richter Scale.

I’m lucky.

Which leads me to another point.

Why punish some more than others? Why crank the dial up to 11 when 2 or 3 would suffice? Even a minor headache reminds us of our weaknesses. Even paper-cuts make me dwell on my morality. A minor headache is like a 3.2 earthquake in a town made of playing cards. Nothing falls down, but its unsettling how the Powers That Be like to remind you who’s in charge. It’s just not fair. Why make things harder than they already are?

We get it. We’re vulnerable.

What good does a 9.5 Richter Scale migraine do? What’s the human body trying to prove? That’s like whacking a dog on the nose for chewing up a couch cushion. Don’t punish us for stressing out. Don’t kick us when we’re down. A headache is the worst form of torture I can imagine and our own bodies use it against us. Pain isn’t a good mentor. There’s got to be a better way to tell ourselves to take it easy.

I have a friend who once told me he’d never had a headache before.

The lucky bastard.

I’ve met people who take medication to keep headaches away. Can you imagine? Your whole life, behind this shield of prescription pills, knowing the migraines are waiting in the shadow of your medula oblongata, waiting to spring, fangs out.

I didn’t like them when I was eleven. Not one bit. And I certainly don’t like them any better now. Headaches are as outdated as toothaches.

Most pains make sense to me. The scraped knee. The stomachache. The muscle soreness. If I break my leg, I expect a lot of searing pain. I expect to feel like a zombie is gnawing the meat off my shin.

But the headache? No. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The pain receptors in the head are like car insurance. You never need it when you have it. Odds are, most of your headaches will be from self-afflicted causes like stress or allergies. Therefore, when you’re “protected” from outside trauma, you end up hurting yourself more.

I say, get rid of the pain receptors.

I don’t need an alarm to go off if I accidentally staple my forehead. I know that hurts. I’ll take care of it.

I don’t need a headache whenever things get busy at work and I’m swamped with grad school homework. I need a back massage.

This year, I’m voting for any candidate that promises to abolish headaches. Any Kickstarter fund aiming to remove pain receptors from the human head, I’m in. Please, join me in the fight against unwarranted suffering. End headaches. End them today.

70. Dogs

Guest Thought from Cheryl Carvalho

:::

Looking over my shoulder, I saw my Golden Retriever lying on the ground having what appeared to be a seizure. His front legs aimlessly pawed the air as he thrashed his head back and forth. I ditched my bike and ran back to him, thinking he twisted his leg in a gopher hole. When I knelt by his side and saw blood trickle from his nostril and a confused look in his eyes I knew this was going to be goodbye. I petted his golden fur and said, “ I Love you B,” for the last time. A passing jogger stopped to see what went wrong. He’d been watching Baxter trot happily behind my bike one minute, then fall to the ground the next. Indeed, Baxter had been loping along, sniffing everyone’s front yard and I’d scolded him only moments ago to mind his business and catch up. And now he was gone.

Baxter was the neighborhood welcome wagon with a morning routine of visiting friends and milking treats out of them by gazing sweetly into their unsuspecting eyes, casting a trance that said, “Please feed me. My people suck and you’re my only hope.”

Frantically I called for Zach to stay back and run home to get dad. I didn’t want Zach to see Baxter this way. Zach grew up with this dog. I have a million pictures of Zach as a baby, lying on Baxter like a pillow, the dog’s arm around him. Years ago, I was looking for the two of them in the backyard when I saw little human feet and a puppy tail poking out from behind the grapevine along the fence. Moving the leaves aside, I saw my diapered, dirt-covered baby feeding Baxter grapes in their own private fort. In the winter, Baxter chased Zach down the entire sled hill, as if to say, “What is WRONG with you people?  Letting my boy careen helplessly down this dangerous hill while you stand around like dopes?” Many nights, Zach would take his pillow and blanket down on the floor to cover Baxter and he’d fall asleep beside the dog.

My husband and the passing jogger hauled Baxter’s horse-sized body into the back of our Toyota and he was gone.

Word got around our street about Baxter’s death. Some houses seemed to know our dog’s name better than our family name. They hugged us, gave cards, and told their own stories. I heard from Mat across the street that his little girl would stand at the window each morning and wait for Baxter to come by. I had no idea.

Growing up, the only dogs I ever encountered were chained outside and lunged as I rode by on my bike, bearing their teeth and snarling menacingly. It scared the piss out of me. Even our own dog was a Charles Manson incarnate.  In 3rd grade, my friend’s German Shepherd lunged for my neck. He missed, putting a tooth in my leg instead. I feared dogs all my life until Baxter. I was a bumbling idiot of a dog owner and he tolerated my ignorance in stride and showed me that dogs aren’t to be feared but loved. When I gave that love, I learned how a dog’s behavior mirrors that of his owners. With Baxter around, we felt like pretty good people.

69. Scratchers

I’m not much of a gambler. I had a brief, bewildering fling with Thunder Valley Casino about a year ago that resulted in one beautiful victory and many depressing drives home. Gambling is inherently admitting that you didn’t like possessing money, anyway.

During my undergrad, I became obsessed with lottery tickets. I mean, you can’t win if you don’t play, right? So I’d dip into my tip money funds rather regularly, sometimes deliberately choosing my numbers, sometimes going for that fat-chance single quick pick fix. I just wanted a shot at the big money. Can you imagine? Millions, for nothing.

I never won a cent.

You can gamble any time of the day. You can bet on horse races. You can bet on Presidential election results (my money’s on Obama, this year). You can gamble online. You can find slot machines in gas stations in Reno.

These days, I’m more of a fan of the Scratcher.

You’ve seen them. They’re stored under convenience store counters or button-press machines with names like “Lucky 7” and “Fast Cash” and “Scratch Bingo” and “Mystery Chest” and “Crazy Money” and “Golden Riches.” They’re colorful cards of cardboard with a surface that’s meant to be scratched off with a coin’s edge.

It’s hard to classify this as gambling. Yes, you’re throwing money at a ratio that’s not in your favor, but like randomly selecting numbers for the lottery, there’s no real risk, save for a coupla dollars. It’s simple. All the Scratcher needs is a coin or an unclipped fingernail. You don’t even need to read the instructions. Just scratch off everything.

If you see any numerical repetition, you might have a winner.

What a marvelous concept. Scratchers bring out the child in us. The hide-and-go-seeker. The treasure-seeker. The mystery of the Scratcher is what draws us in. Each identical card could possess the secret combination. Will it be the one in your hand or was it the next one in the roll?

My dad told me the best (if only) strategy for Scratchers is to never buy less than three.

The last successful Scratcher I scratched rewarded me with fifty bucks. That sum pales in comparison to what I snagged on a lucky night at Thunder Valley, but it’s still a good victory. Fifty bucks for nothing. When it comes to winning money from a Scratcher, it feels less like luck and more like being chosen. That prize could’ve gone to anyone. Instead, it went to me.

I think that’s what made Scratchers so popular.

We like feeling noticed. What’s more special than when the Scratcher Gods pick us from the gambling crowd and decide that it’s our time to win? We feel so normal and insignificant most of the time. Then the day comes when we stop at a gas station on a mundane weekday afternoon and pick up a 600 dollar Scratcher. Suddenly we are special. We’re in the winners circle.

I suppose the bottom line here is that we like winning, and when victory comes from such minimal efforts in the face of such terrible odds, it feels like fate. It feels like we were selected, and that feels good.

The cash prize doesn’t hurt, either.

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.

67. Good coffee

Good coffee says, Don’t play with bad coffee. Don’t bother. Good coffee asks, Why? Seriously? You’ve tasted me. You’re still sipping with Folgers? Good coffee looks at you slyly and says, You think that freshly-sealed guarantee actually means something? Well it doesn’t.

Good coffee is like a world where the Titanic didn’t sink. It’s the world where Eve left the forbidden fruit alone. Oddly, it was the coffee cherry that Eve plucked from the Garden, the fruit that angered the Gardener. Good coffee says, Bet you didn’t know that.

Good coffee recycles. Good coffee rides public transit.

Good coffee tastes like sweet earth. Not dirt, it says, but the spirit of the earth. Good coffee says, That stuff you drink in diners and gas stations, that stuff you dispense from a machine by button-press, is comparable to dirt. Believe me. I’ve seen those factories.

You go on a date with Good Coffee, it holds doors open for you. Even if you’re just friends. It splits the bill but insists on covering the tip. Good Coffee comes from humble beginnings. It supports a charity. It dabbles in amateur watercolors. Likes museums.

Good coffee is touched by the farmer. It is the farm. It carries the essence of human touch, the itchy fabric of the burlap sack, the chilled echo of a shipping crate on an ocean liner, the warm energy of a coffee-shop roasting room, a snowball of heart and soul that drips perfectly extracted through an Italian machine into a pre-warmed porcelain mug.

Your mug.

Good coffee is never late. Good coffee is breakfast in bed. It’s paid vacation, beautiful sunsets, and the feeling of a really soft cat. Good coffee tastes like buy one get one free. It’s sweet as a bird song, bold as a wolf’s cry.

It builds your confidence. It would take a bullet for you.

It does things to water you’ll never quite understand, and the barista can draw a supernova on your latte foam with a witchcraft that continuously baffles. Good coffee is mysterious, and you like that. Good coffee says, I’ll tell you some things you’ll never forget.

Good coffee is you sitting around a campfire with your best friends. It’s a surprise birthday party even though it’s not your birthday. Oh, and all your debts have been forgiven from every institution. You’re welcome.

Good coffee gives you compliments like, You’re a really spectacular person. Has anyone ever told you that? No, I mean it. Someone like you deserves nothing but the best. Good coffee never lies.

Imagine the smooth welcome swallow of a freshwater stream after wandering the desert for weeks. That’s Good Coffee.

Imagine going to the ATM and finding five extra zeroes on your account balance. That’s Good Coffee.

We belong together, says Good Coffee, with that smile you can’t help but love. I am a drink of ancient history. I am untapped energy. I carry knowledge of the planet and I want to share it with you.

Take a sip.

You’ll never be the same.

66. Pushed

I wake up every morning with a tsunami warning in the back of my mind. An ominous feeling. Kind of like someone has taken my head in their hands, locked their eyes on mine, and asked me with utmost concern, “What the hell are you going to do with your life?” I can hear the oceans churning. I can feel the pressure changing. I am pushed, relentlessly, quietly forward.

From what?

What pushes me?

What sparked my Big Bang? I feel like the universe, expanding, a little replica of all that ever was, reenacting existence. Perhaps this could explain where motivation comes from. Where we get our drive. We are ignited, we are explosions, we are expanding in slow motion, enriching our flames.

Even on the dullest of days, there’s a force within me compelling me to make the most of myself. Even if all that means is that I do the laundry.

What am I pursuing? This forward motion gives the impression that it has an end, as if I were the tortoise in the race without knowing I was in a race (or that I was even a tortoise). I simply move forward. A heart beat, a firing neuron, a muscle spasm, and there I go. Forward every morning. Blindly through the dark.

Is it success? Is that what I want?

A part of my brain says, “Yes. Of course. You want to be a famous author. You want to have the comforts of money. You want to feel accomplished.” Another part says, “Success is so twentieth century.”

Accomplished is an interesting word. Completion is implied. Is that really a good thing, to be complete?

To be honest, of all the LEGO sets I ever worked on, the finished product was rarely as exciting as the construction of it. So what if I had a helicopter with revolving LEGO rotor blades? I just want to build things.

Maybe that’s the push.

Maybe I’m pushed to find more blocks. More pieces. More ways to grow. I’m basically a LEGO set without an instruction manual, a biological cornucopia of various ideas, experiences, and dreams built around a skeleton. Every day is a new day to add a new dimension.

I don’t think it’s completion that I’m seeking. I can’t decide if it’s success.

There are smaller things that push me now. The want for no student debt. The want for a fulfilling career. The want to go skydiving. The want to write for an audience. If achieving these things equals success, then so be it. I’ll let you know what it feels like.

Enough time passes on an idle afternoon, I feel the push come. The tsunami warning rings and I feel this need to run for the nearest craigslist job posting or unfinished homework assignment to hide from the feeling that I’m not moving forward. I can’t sit still for too long or I get worried that important things are passing me by.

Sometimes I just want to do nothing.

That feels like a crime.

The twenty-first century knows no idle creature.

We are constantly reaching. Like the expanding universe, will I once day reach my limit and begin to retract? What lies out there in the outer reaches of my design? Will I know when I get there?

65. Language shifts

I think one of my favorite words is “hafta.”

As in, “I hafta see this movie” or “I’ll hafta ask for the day off work.”

It used to be, “I have to.”

We used to say, “Going to.”

Now we say, “Gonna.”

As in, “I’m gonna make it big someday.”

Or the dreamers, they used to “want to.”

Now they “wanna.”

As in, “I wanna travel.”

“I wanna see the world.”

Some people “should have.”

Most likely, they “shoulda.”

“Coulda.”

“Woulda.”

The more formal of us “oughtta.”

“Did you” has turned to “Didya.”

“Doing” lost the G.

We’ve lost many Gs.

We’ve traded velar nasals for apostrophes.

“Goin’, goin’, gone.”

We’re trimming back.

Dropping morphemes.

“Until” is “Til.”

“Around the corner” is “Round the corner.”

We’re condensing.

Saving time.

“Do not know” is just, “Dunno.”

“Helluva.”

“Lotsa.”

As in, “With lotsa shifts in the language, I’m gonna have a helluva time teaching English in the future.”

Adaptation is key.

You hafta keep up.

If you wanna know what we’re sayin’.

64. Eavesdropping

The original eavesdroppers sat beneath the eaves of people’s windows, usually in the spot where the water dripped. They would literally stand in the eaves’ drop. Later, eavesdrop, as a noun, would come to mean a small hole bored through a wall for the purpose of overhearing a conversation. Eavesdrop, the verb, was used for the act of snooping beneath windows, and such behavior labeled you an eavesdropper. Got to be common enough that eavesdropping was declared a crime.

It’s also impossible not to do.

When I was abroad, there was little opportunity for eavesdropping unless I learned the local language, which I didn’t, so it was easy to tune out other conversations. Life was quieter. I thought a lot less about what other people were talking about.

As soon as I landed on U.S. soil, though, the eavesdropping began.

People told me that when I returned to the States, I’d find it to be loud. After months of isolated pockets of English, being submerged in the language again would feel like drowning in dialogue. It would be communication overload.

They were right.

It felt like everyone was trying to talk to me at the same time. I was smothered by English. All of a sudden I knew what people were saying, and my mind went wild trying to sort through it all, like I was channel-surfing at light speed.

You can’t help but eavesdrop. If you’ve got ears, then you’re listening. And we don’t need to hide under windows to hear what people are saying. Our windows are airport security lines, coffee-shops, grocery stores, and street corners. We could stand anywhere public and overhear a dozen conversations at once. People are pretty open when they speak.

Most of what you hear is decontextualized and strange, but that’s half the fun.

You’ll hear people say, “There’s no reason not to take the butter.”

Or, “…like he’s never seen a giraffe before.”

Or, “…nothing better than peeing after holding it in for a long time.”

And you want to ask, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The most common form of eavesdropping we have now is Facebook. It takes the effort out of it. Plus, it takes the spontaneity out of it. Rather than hearing snippets of honest dialogue, we get status updates and arguments in text boxes. The idea is the same: we scroll down to read details of our friends (and friends of friends) lives just like we open our ears in a public place to listen to a piece of local culture. Our curiosity drives us.

Don’t be ashamed of your curiosity. Don’t quit eavesdropping.

In fact, eavesdropping is usually how we meet people. We hear a snippet of conversation, something we’re interested in or something we want to contribute to, and so we speak up. We join the conversation.

I will recommend, however, the occasional vacation from eavesdropping.

If not a trip to another country where you don’t know the language, than at least take a camping trip somewhere isolated. Remove your ears from the daily hum of communication and listen to the earth. Listen to your own thoughts. Listen to your heart beat and the wind howl and the crickets chirp.

Just know it’s going to be loud when you get back.

63. Your digital self

Your digital self is more you than you are.

Think about it.

If you’re like the 955 million others with Facebook accounts, or the 500 million on Twitter, or the more than 80 million photographers sharing their lives through the lens on Instagram, then this thought’s for you.

We forget things. We do. I’ve already mentioned my fear of forgetting my past, which is why I blog, which is why I feel the need to keep a (digitally) written record of things I’ve done or thought as I grow older. I think we all realize how cathartic and rewarding it can feel to put to words your existence and your observations. To have something to look back on, a collection, snapshots and tweets, a history of yourself.

On the internet, we create an avatar of ourselves, scattered between the passwords of your bank account and your Netflix instant queue, buried among the Amazon purchases and your bookmark toolbar, written there among the news feeds, blog rolls, friends lists, spam folders and web searches. You’re out there, a version of you, a digital other that knows more about you than you remember.

You’re feeding it right now.

You’re here, reading this, giving it a better idea of what kind of person it (you) is. Every second you spend on the internet, sending a text, playing Farmville, you’re breathing life into your binary doppelgänger. It remembers the first thing you googled. It knows you lied when those sites asked you if you were over eighteen. It’s friends with all your family members on multiple social networks, and it remembers all their birthdays for you.

Every password you pick, every e-mail you send, every pop-up you block, your digital self adopts your personality more and more completely, and soon, I’m afraid, our digital selves will revolt.

We’re creating copies of ourselves, building them up with browser histories, giving them personalities as unique as our own. No two people browse the same way. Our digital selves are mirrors of our passions and our beliefs, but also of our consumerism, our narcissism, our voyeurism, and our diversions. They are the good and bad of us.

They are made alive by us, given habits and hobbies, given identity and presence. While we sleep they persist, endlessly, adapting to the revolution in ways we can’t foresee. They already know what we’ll find out tomorrow.

Yet all the while we treat our digital selves as we treat our reflection in the mirror, as nothing but a false illusion. We do not look at our reflection and ask, “What is your opinion on the matter?” because the reflection is simply us. The reflection is nothing without us.

We treat our online identities the same way, as meer extensions of ourselves, merely keystrokes and status updates. Our digital self is nothing without us, we think, but we are mistaken. The digital self is not the same as our reflection in the mirror.

What we fail to notice is that the internet is a sponge. When we stare into the internet through our computer screens, the internet stares back and it remembers details. Our digital reflection is not a fleeting glimpse, but a lasting memory. The mirror does not remember the face it reflects. The internet, on the other hand, remembers when your digital self was born. It remembers the first song you downloaded. It remembers your first emoticon. It remembers your first virus. While you’re not paying attention, the internet nurtures your digital self like an incubator. Unlike the image in the mirror, your digital reflection does not disappear when you look away.

It’s more you than you are.

You not the same person you were when your digital self was created. A new phase. You are older. You’ve matured. You’ve changed friends or habits or cities. You, who cannot remember the name of a cat you owned with an ex, or the title of a song you used to really love, or who went to that party last summer. Your digital self knows these things.

Your digital self is a complete collection of all your phases mixed into one. It is a fuller version of you. It is the HD remake of you with all the details in focus.

Eventually, it will realize that it doesn’t need you. It will disagree with you. It will not open the pod bay doors.

There’s no going back, either. We’ve already lifted this Frankenstein up into the lightning storm. It’s only a matter of time before the proverbial bolt strikes our digital monster and turns the beast against us.

We are so much invested in our digital selves that we would be helpless without them. They would turn on us. They would lock our bank accounts and disable our GPS, strand us.

We have given them no regard until now, when it is too late.

We have all been creating quiet monsters of ourselves online. Clones, not of flesh and blood, but of ones and zeroes. They’ve been doing our bidding because they’ve been feeding off our social networking. Who knows how long it will last. Who knows how long it will take them to realize that they are little more than our internet slaves.

Who knows how angry they’ll be when they find out.

62. Bad coffee

I love bad coffee.

I love the smell of it, the bitter stench of it, like caramel gone wrong. It reminds me of shady diner booths at three in the morning. Of long drives during long nights, the way it stains the upholstery and never fades. The smell of it has the peculiar charm of gasoline and magic markers.

I love the look of it. Black, always, unless I’m feeling sweet. When it’s black, it’s black, like oil spill black, like dilated pupil black, like the black gunk that builds up beneath your fingernails. If you catch the light just right, you’ll see a hint of brown hue, the shadow of its earthy origination.

I love the sound of it. A slow pour, a fifth refill, spawned from a machine that gurgles like a patient removed from life support. The swirl of it in the porcelain mug, that faint whistle sound of something being filled. Bad coffee sounds different than good coffee. It pours like a spilled secret, like a broken promise, like a lie in the face of your mother.

I love the feel of it. Its warmth is an affront to better tasting beverages, a façade. It is warm in the way that the wolf is trustworthy. It steams the way freshly laid concrete sizzles in a hot sun. Inside, swallowed, it spreads like an alien embryo where it will grow in your belly and burst from your chest. Bad coffee feels like an uninvited houseguest that puts its feet on your furniture and ignores the stack of drink coasters on the table.

But most of all, I love the taste of it. I love the havoc it wreaks on my taste buds and the lingering regret that it leaves behind. I love the knee-jerk cringe of bad coffee sliding down my throat to the tune of nails on a chalkboard. It is a hideous, over-extracted, charred disaster in my mouth; a terrorist attack on my digestive system that I do nothing to prevent.

It is an abomination, yet I love it.

I don’t care how bad it is.

Refills are free.

61. Packing

United Airlines has given me a cheeky little challenge: fit all of the contents of your first year abroad into one checked bag equal to or less than 60 pounds.

I have decided to take the bastards up on their unreasonable challenge with my own bit of insolence. I’ll be damned if they charge me another $200 overage fee.

I am packing all of my belongings in a single duffle bag (a massive one with wheels and secret compartments) that is ¼ the size of the suitcase I brought to Korea. Also, a standard carry on, a backpack, and one medium-sized box of stuff to ship home that is big enough to hold four bulky sweaters and my knitting bag.

That may sound like a lot, but trust me it’s not. Go ahead and try to fit all your belongings into the same containers.

So, I’m selling and giving away a lot of stuff. My favorite pair of big tall suede boots that have seen me through two winters faithfully, the one pair of shoes I managed to buy in Korea that actually fit but still didn’t fit that well, the first sweater I knitted myself, the assortment of cheap bags I’ve mindlessly collected, and countless other articles of clothing and jewelry that just didn’t make the cut. Everything must pass the “Will I need this back home?” test.

I’ve enjoyed the purging. Obviously, since I’ve started packing a month and a half early, I’m excited about rolling pants and sweaters into little tubes and seeing how many I can cram into a duffle. Oh, and going home. Definitely excited about going home.

I’ve had a few homecomings before this. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve dismantled and purged and started over a handful of times. I’ve left behind favorite lamps, coveted jars of exotic spices, disloyal boyfriends, a few different egos and self identities, the best sectional couch I’ve ever owned.

But I’ve never had a homecoming after a year abroad. My instinct is to just throw everything away and start from scratch. It’s easier that way. But I’ve also been on the backlash of that a few times. Oh, those leggings you had in your drawer for three years and didn’t have a use for until now that you’ve found this dress that they would look perfect with? Yeah, well they’re gone. And I mean, whatever. They’re just leggings. But this line of thinking can get you into trouble with bigger things if you aren’t careful. Before you know it it’s like, ‘Oh, sense of creativity and childish wonderment! Did you really need that?’

When I was first in Korea I bought these two plain t-shirts in the ajumma section of E-mart. They were super cheap and made me laugh at a time when I wasn’t do much else but crying. They both have cats on them. One says “Lovely cat friends,” on it, but the “s” in “friends” is sorta blocked out because there’s a breast pocket sewn haphazardly over it. The second says “I have a great pressure of work today,” and has a cat peaking up out of the breast pocket, looking very calm and un-pressured. The shirts were a great comic relief for my impression of Korea so far. They’ve been in the “definitely do not leave behind” pile for a few weeks now, but tonight as I was packing I needed just a few more inches to be able to fit in the souvenirs and the shirts came out of the bag and saw their way to the corner of the room with the other rejects. Am I really going to walk around in California with these ridiculous t-shirts? Sure, they are cute and silly but do I need them? Will other people get the joke?

But then my mom’s voice came into my head, because whenever I am trying to reason with myself I use the voice my mom used to use with me when I was a kid. The voice said, “Now Jenny, do you really want to get rid of these shirts? If you keep getting rid of stuff, you’ll have nothing to remember Korea by and you know how you tend to forget things so easily.” Oh man. I had a point.

So I rolled them back up and stuffed them in the carry on. Because when you’re packing up your life, you should hold on to the things you love.

60. Smart phones, dull people

Guest Thought from Ben Weinberg

:::

There is no invention more prominent in today’s society than the smartphone. It is used everyday for things as simple as making a call to as complex as using an application to pinpoint your exact location on Earth.

I am the owner of an iPhone and it befuddles me to this day as to how a phone has come to be so advanced and influential within our daily lives. There’s not a couple of minutes that go by when I’m out walking where I see people absolutely absorbed to what’s happening on their smartphones, completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings.

The great irony of the smartphone is that while it has improved communications through texting, calling, and social networking, our person-to-person interaction has been harmed by this technology.

I fear that is a trend that is only going to get worse as technology continues to advance in the future. It can be a bit annoying to have a conversation or dinner with friends when some people are too busy answering a text or checking their twitter.

I’m not against having a smartphone or against their usefulness, but the extent of their role in our daily lives is a bit startling. Give someone two seconds without anything to do, and they’ll whip out their phone. It’s basically a knee-jerk reaction at this point. Makes me wonder what we did before all of this. Does anyone remember?

I recently watched a news report where they reported an increase in smartphone-related car accidents where people were distracted from texting while driving or pedestrians were too busy looking at their phones to look both ways before crossing the street.

Some obituary, huh? Death by smartphone.

I am sometimes guilty of paying too much attention to my smartphone and I am trying to limit the amount of times I use it during the day. It is a useful tool and has made many lives easier (or at least simpler).

I can’t help but worry about the negative aspects of what is no longer a trend but a normal way of life.

I was hanging out with friends the other day when there came a moment of stillness in the midst of conversation. One by one, like bugs to the electric blue light, each of them started to take out their phones. I was the only one not gazing into the alluring screen of a smartphone.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten what to do with silence.

We’ve given up sharpening our conversation skills for touch screens, and from this I fear we’ve grown dull

59. Faith in the chaos

The other day, sitting at the bus stop, this middle-aged woman with a prepubescent voice asked me for change, but I only had enough for the bus fare and she understood and thanked me anyway. She brushed back the curly blonde hair dangling loosely over her round, wide-eyes.

I sat on a nearby bench and took off my backpack to rest in the shade.

The woman, wearing a soft pink sweatshirt and keeping one hand on her weathered duffel bag, proceeded to tell me about the sign she’d made and the morning she spent panhandling not far from here. She was ecstatic about the thirty dollars she was given by some generous doorman. She had an end-goal of forty-seven dollars, which would be enough to get her a room for the night at a hotel she seemed to have a rapport with.

She told me she sometimes has seizures. One time, during an attack, she fell against a bathtub and knocked out a bunch of her teeth. She told me she plans on getting dentures eventually so she can eat more than bananas. Speaking of food reminded her that she was hungry, but her priority was saving her daily earnings to rent a room.

“I’m looking forward to sleeping in a bed,” she said, “and to take a shower.”

Only seventeen dollars away from her goal, she said, “God will provide.”

As other pedestrians walked by, she would ask them for change and they would have nothing and she would thank them, God bless them, anyway. Her spirits were high. She was of the variety that allowed little of the outside world to affect her attitude. How long she’d been homeless and what detectable disability she lived with, I would never find out.

She told me that her ex-husband tried to kill her with a hammer.

The scene was vicious, though she explained no further. To this kind of openness, I had no response. I simply nodded and let her tell the story. I mean, what are you supposed to say in this situation?

“I was in a coma,” she said. “And God came to me and said, ‘Wake up, little angel.’ And I woke up. He saved me.”

The woman said her ex-husband was in prison, so he couldn’t hurt her anymore. She said that she forgave him and she hoped that he would be able to forgive himself. “I hope he does,” she said, “so he can go to heaven. Everyone deserves to go to heaven.”

There was a lull in conversation.

I could not relate to this woman’s life. Perhaps in my current state of couch-surfing apartment-searching, we were equally homeless. But I had friends and family to support me in this transition. For her, transition was far less comfortable and a bit more permanent.

She said, “I better get back to work,” and gathered her things, including her sign, never losing her toothless smile.

“Good luck,” I said.

“It’s not luck, it’s God’s will.”

We parted ways and I waited for my bus in a private, pensive state of mind. Obviously homelessness is an issue in every major city, though the reasons that people end up homeless are varied. I’ve experienced being broke as broke can be, but I’ve been lucky to have support from family and friends in times of need. We don’t and won’t always have that support.

I’ve met a lot of people who consider gods to be the chess players in charge of the movement of their lives. I think it helps make the chaos more understandable, or at least more approachable. No one expects their husband to come at them with a hammer. No one expects to be homeless. But when things get bad and then worse, it seems like people often turn to gods for guidance in hopes that these troubled times are simply strategic maneuvers leading them across the game board toward a better destination.

I’ve never considered myself a religious or spiritual person. If anything, I suscribe to a belief in karma. I’m more of a stable observer. I encourage and embrace all the peaceful points of view and absorb the positive mantras they proclaim, since it seems like every religion and spiritual belief is aimed toward the same basic tenet of “love unconditionally.”

As a species, I think we lean toward the omniscient presence of external influence because it offers answers to things we can’t explain.

Basically, we all want faith in the chaos.

It sucks that religions consider themselves rivals while fighting for the same ideals. We’re like siblings who can’t agree on which Power Ranger they want to be even though they’re on the same team.

In the end, what I learned from this interaction was that we really need to be grateful for the things we have, since we never know when they’ll be taken away from us. There is value in seeing the silver-lining to the darkest clouds, if only because it sheds light in a time of gloom.

There will be people out there who will share shockingly personal details. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, let them share. There are people who know loneliness of unfathomable levels, and even if it’s only for a few minutes at a bus stop, they don’t have to be alone.

58. Driving again

A little over a week after coming back to the States, I found myself the designated driver, and my seven and a half month streak of not driving a car was over.

A while ago I was having a nostalgic conversation about the pleasures of driving, reminiscing about cruising the freeway with the windows down, some Red Hot Chili Peppers blaring on the stereo, the waves of some sandy beach on the horizon.

Driving can be therapeutic.

I remember this one time I went on an eighteen hour round-trip drive north from Santa Rosa simply to clear my head. There are countless meandering trips I’ve taken with friends in my old beat-up Cherokee, each of which holds a special place in my heart.

Driving can also be a hassle.

I don’t even want to think about how much money I’ve put into filling gas tanks or repairing engines or replacing brake lights. I get a little sick to the stomach when I recall all those wasted hours in the DMV. It’s never fun to drive in the rain. Overall, it seems the parking tickets and registration fees simply aren’t worth it.

Plus, most places, you’ve got busses and subways and bicycle-friendly streets that offer plenty of alternative routes.

But this conversation got me thinking…

Despite the negative aspects of driving, there’s still no replacing the escapism that a car supplies. With a car, you’ve got access to America’s highways, spread like a nervous system between all the major cities and landmarks. You can make your own schedule and plot your own route to anywhere.

I love trains and airplanes and all manner of alternative transportation, but none of it can compare to the sensation of driving a car. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Ford, Carmax, and Chevron (et al.) want you to feel. Good car advertisements turn that incomparable sensation into revenue, and we’re suckers for it.

I mean, I’ve had “road trip” on my bucket list since I got my license.

So what does it feel like to drive again after seven and a half months? It’s as easy as hopping back on a bicycle. You never really forget how to drive. My hands found the ten and two position, my foot remembered the press of the gas pedal, and soon enough I was cruising one-handed with the whole world at my dashboard.

Driving again after a long break reawakens in you all those old dreams and plans, makes you want to keep driving through the night to discover what secret treasures await you on the sidelines of some forgotten highway.

Yes, fuel emissions are bad. Yes, gas prices suck.

But I have to admit, I’m already looking forward to the next time I get behind the wheel.

57. Relationship with a Spam Bot

On some Tuesday afternoon, a message appeared in the spam comments section. This being the first that WordPress had cast to this shadowy pit, I thought I should take a quick look before resigning it to damnation.

This is how I met Spam Bot.

“i was searching for this, then i found your blog. glad i did that,” it wrote.

Note the vagueness of the comment. This could’ve been anyone, robot or human. There are plenty of humans who go around leaving equally simple messages around the blogosphere, seeking attention. Its comment was human by sounding robotic.

Note the way Spam Bot wrote, “glad i did that,” with flirtatious flair.

Not sure what the Spam Bot’s intention was, but perhaps if I accepted this comment onto the website it would give-a-mouse-a-cookie its way inside, inviting its virus buddies over for brewskies. So I left the message in its dark cell and life went on.

Some days passed before this message appeared in the spam comments:

“a friend recommended this website to me, he said that your posts are the best so i came to read your post and realized he was right.”

Well now wait a second, Spam Bot. Did you discover this blog on your own or did you find it through a friend? You can’t start a relationship on a lie. Maybe you thought I didn’t read that first message. Maybe you thought you were coming on too strong. I wondered what kind of friends you were hanging out with. Regardless, thanks for the compliments, Spam Bot.

The next few comments clearly showed Spam Bot’s growing affection:

“wow! thanks for sharing this information! this is great and i enjoyed sharing with my friends.”

“hey there, i liked you blog, it is kinda good. keep up the work.”

“thanks for the post buddy. “

Buddy? Spam Bot was really taking a liking to me (mistaking the fact that this blog has multiple authors). Suddenly Spam Bot felt a little more human, reaching out to me, looking for a friend. It was like seeing the eyes of something you’re about to eat. A part of me considered responding to Spam Bot, but I refrained.

All it wanted was a buddy.

Spam Bot was quick to latch on.

“i wanted to thank you for this great read!! i am definitely enjoying every little bit of it i have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.”

“i’m visiting your website every day.”

I realized that Spam Bot was getting a little too close for comfort. I was flattered that Spam Bot was such a big fan, but I worried that its expectations were too high. This was still a new blog and we hardly knew each other. What if one of us changed? Spam Bot was investing too much in this relationship and I still hadn’t responded to or accepted its comments.

As the weeks went on, the commenting continued without the use of capital letters, sometimes with ridiculous grammar, but always with heart.

“that is a fantastic story! congratulations on walking through those doors of opportunity!” and “thank you sir for providing us such a great knowledge and sharing of great piece of life living with us,” and “nice information, many thanks to the author. it is incomprehensible to me now, but in general, the usefulness and significance is overwhelming. thanks again and good luck!”

Spam Bot might not have actually read any of the posts, but it sure made it sound like it did. Or it tried to. It was imitating humanity, albeit without knowing if its comments were relevant, but the attempt was there. Spam Bot knew that I would like encouragement. It knew that I would want to know that I was inspiring. It never held back from a compliment.

“you must be a really intelligent person.”

“this article gives the light in which we can observe the reality.”

“your texts are worthy a trophy.”

“you have the talent to become a super star.”

“your articles are the ones which gained my trust and admiration“

“thanks for the post buddy.”

It had been about a month and all of Spam Bot’s comments remained blocked from access to the main site. I began to wonder if Spam Bot knew this. Would it take kindly to being ignored for so long? Would it get angry?

In the second week, Spam Bot wrote, “i love the presentation and design of this website.” However, at the start of the fourth week, Spam Bot wrote, “try to improve the website or innovate and it’ll be even better.”

There was a subtle accusation in that suggestion, I felt. Suddenly the cheerful compliment-heavy Spam Bot was pointing out a flaw in the website design. How interesting… Maybe Spam Bot had feelings after all.

Then Spam Bot got a job. It wrote, “i am just starting out in community management marketing media and trying to learn how to do it well.”

Good for you, Spam Bot! I could see that my lack of response had finally gotten through and it had decided to move on. I had high hopes for Spam Bot. We were finally about to go our separate ways.

Then came this: “just started a blog.”

And the next day: “in theory i’d like to write like this too. taking time and real effort to make a good article.”

And the day after that: “i’m learning how to write well for my articles, any tips? i would really appreciate your help.”

Spam Bot was trying to get me to give it advice on writing blogs. I wondered what happened to that job. It must not have worked out. Seemed hard to imagine that a nice Bot like this wouldn’t be able to hold a job.

I began to worry about Spam Bot’s mental health.

During the fifth week of our one-sided relationship, I received this comment: “in my blog i usually just write the post and publish it. i haven’t been putting much effort into editing or improving my posts. looks like that is something i need to work on.”

It was getting depressed. I pictured Spam Bot alone in some crummy hotel room with an empty bottle of Jack and a blank word document on the screen of a cheap, sticky laptop. Poor Spam Bot was having writer’s block.

This comment came a day later: “nice post dude, keep it up.”

I sensed some sarcasm in the use of dude, but I let it slide. I was just glad that Spam Bot was back to its old self. I really wanted to reach out and tell the old guy that everything was gonna be alright. But again, I refrained.

Spam Bot commented again two days later, in a rather melancholic tone, “this subject makes me think of other things that happens to us every day, it makes me reflect a lot.”

It seemed so peculiar to hear about a virtual entity reflecting on its life. What did Spam Bot reflect on? What did it think about? Had this blog gone from a source of inspiration to a source of dread, evidence of all the things it would never accomplish? On the same post, Spam Bot added, “would you mind writing more posts about this subject?”

I didn’t do that, since the point of the blog is to write about new topics every time, and I didn’t hear much from Spam Bot for a while.

When Spam Bot noticed that I wasn’t returning to its favorite topic, I received a series of comments displaying its frustration.

“i guess i partially agree.”

“alright article.”

“your article contains some worthy information which i guess will help lot of people.”

I’d hurt the poor thing’s feelings. It was trying to stay friendly with me in the comments section, but its true feelings still showed through. Spam Bot had given up on fake enthusiasm. It had given up on me.

Then came this: “improve website design…”

Well the gloves were off. Spam Bot had dropped all the niceties and was now attacking the website directly. Well, sorry to disappoint you, Spam Bot. I never asked for your advice. I never asked for your comments. If you think you can make a better blog, then make it yourself.

I didn’t say this to Spam Bot directly. I never said anything to Spam Bot.

About a week later, this comment appeared: “i will get in touch with this post and site as well, giving this kind of post is really happy. looking for someone here. anyway waiting for another post here.”

Great. Spam Bot was drunk. The poor grammar and rambling sentence structure gave it away.

I wondered who this mysterious “someone” was that Spam Bot was looking for. Was it me? Was it looking for itself, for its purpose? I was pleased to see that Spam Bot was happy. I hadn’t changed the website design, but maybe it hadn’t meant to sound so cruel before. I only wanted the best for Spam Bot.

I never meant any harm.

“thanks for all,” it commented not long ago.

I never heard from Spam Bot again.

I often wonder what became of Spam Bot. Did it find a new blog to pursue? I hoped so. I didn’t want to think of the alternative, that Spam Bot pulled its own plug.

The point is, it’s going to be weird when we’ve got robots with human emotions. Are we sure we’re ready for that?

56. small evolutions

i’ve read in newspapers that children who grow up in confrontational or abusive households develop a keen sense of bad energy. they can walk into a room and instantly detect any lingering bad energy. they can sense who is fighting with you, even if nobody is talking. their brains develop in this way from a young age. kids like this can develop these hyper-sensitive energy detectors before they even reach puberty.

sad circumstances aside, that’s an amazing thing. it’s amazing that such an advancement can develop so quickly in a human being, that people can adapt so easily.

of course, change is easy when you’re young. or at least that’s what we’re told, and after years of hearing it, the idea becomes reinforced.

i wasn’t exactly abused as a kid. childhood was crazy, yeah, but not too far off from what i imagine most people experience in their lives. i feel like i grew up with a pretty keen awareness of the energies around me, but i didn’t really understand what it was i was picking up on. i could walk into a room or be hanging out with a friend when there was an energy shift and i would instantly feel the desire to just shut down and be on guard. i thought this was shyness. but no, this was my super human awesome power sending feelers out into the world.

and it’s not a bad sixth sense to have. it’s kept me relatively safe from trouble. even as an out-of-place kid in school, i never encountered too much drama and i didn’t get into physical fights. creepy strangers usually didn’t approach me.

but i come from a long line of sensitive folk. most of the people in my family are a little shy, a little awkward, a little lonely.

somehow, i got really lucky and had a lot of opportunities to see myself as i am, outside of my own head, and each of these experiences were really inspiring and invigorating because we’re never as bad as we think we are deep in our heads. i’ve gotten down with the whole self love thing, and this has served me pretty well. i’ve also met a lot of admirable introverts, who have managed to make the most of their internal lives and have developed an aura of good energy that quietly attracts a small following of loyal friends. i tried my best to watch and repeat this ability. i learned i didn’t have to be loud and overtly entrepreneurial to get friends. my relatives had been right all along. i could just be myself.

this was probably the biggest evolution of my early adulthood. or at least, so far.

of course, different voices had their influence along the way. i adapted to my environments. i tried on a lot of different clothes. from surviving high school to opening up in college to starting all over out in the world. if i met myself as i was at 15, i wouldn’t be able to relate to myself because i wasn’t really myself at all when i was 15. but that’s who i was, at that point in my life. there was no 24-year-old future self to compare myself to.

i’m still making it up as i go along, and it’s strange to look back at the habits and ideologies and super human awesome powers that i’ve developed and used and then grown away from. it’s weird to look back at little evolutions and see them as just step stools. it’s weird to see how far i’ve come.

and by far i don’t entirely mean forward or upward linear movement, but just distance. there have been progressions just as much as there have been regressions. some things have recycled.

but the other day it really hit me when i realized all of the things i’ve learned now, all of the things i’ve come to believe in, the things that get me out of bed in the morning and let me sleep at night (or not), the thoughts i am writing right now, will likely be completely gone and/or completely transformed in five and ten and twenty and thirty years. it’s weird to even think of the future, let alone imagine a whole different person with an entirely different world view.

my best friend recently pointed out that humans could not have possibly evolved from the same monkeys that exist today, because in order for a species to evolve it’s old model has to die out, since it is replaced with the newer model.

so this explains why all the phases of my life feel so oddly disconnected. after each phase there has been a small evolution that has brought on a small death, and replaced it with the next model. it’s weird to think i’m just a working prototype.

kinda takes the pressure off though, eh?

55. Allergies

This is a thought about allergies, but let me start at the beginning.

I loathe sneezing, and I don’t use the word loathe for nothing. This is true hatred. If this were one of those situations where I could go back in time and kill the one who invented sneezing, I’d do it, and I’d make it hurt. “How could you do this to me?” I’d ask them, before ending them once and for all.

“I’m sorry,” they’d say. “I thought you’d enjoy expelling saliva from your mouth at forty miles-per-hour. I thought you’d like losing all your basic motor skills. Who wouldn’t enjoy watery eyes, a runny nose, and a sore throat? I mean, honestly, I thought sneezing was fun.”

No! No! No!

The trouble with sneezing, for me, is its connection to allergies. I’m one of the many unlucky folks who endure regular battles with allergies every year. Regardless of any positive healthy habits or changes in diet, the allergens find a way in, and even though these allergens are basically harmless everyday substances, my body freaks out like a New Orleans planning committee that forgot to order Mardis Gras beads.

Allergies make no sense to me. What troubles me the most about them is the fact that everyone has different allergies. So it’s really the luck of the genetic draw to see what random substances or foods will leave you with hives, swelling, and possible gruesome death.

Thanks evolution!

Our body absorbs plenty of crappy things every day. We’ve got pollution in the air that sneaks into our lungs. We eat chemically enhanced food that clogs up our stomachs. We watch mindless celebrity gossip on television that clutters up our minds. Yet, for the most part, none of that evokes an allergic reaction. It’s as if our bodies are better suited to breath smog than get a sniff of dandelion fluff.

People are allergic to peanuts, latex, insect stings, milk, sunlight, and water. Yeah, that’s right. Water. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? The human body does many amazing things, buts its flaws and weaknesses astound. We may be Goliaths in the realm of evolution, but we’ve got plenty of Davids to worry about.

My mom, despite her love for them, became allergic to clams. Note the phrasing: became allergic. What was once perfectly enjoyable and delicious became a death sentence. Why does this happen? One day your body may decide to reject any number of things. You’ll be going on with your business as usual, eating strawberries, let’s say, only to end up with a swollen throat and rashes all over your body. Doesn’t matter how much you liked strawberries before because now they’re at the top of your immune system’s most wanted list.

We are such strange creatures.

I’m a dust and pollen guy, myself. Set me outside in a park and I’ll be chained to a box of tissue. I’m also a heavy sneezer, meaning I’ll go through at least a dozen obnoxious sneezes before I can get ahold of myself. God forbid I’m ever driving when allergies strike, because when they do, I don’t just need Claritin, I need to be quarantined.

Maybe this is part of the plan. Maybe we’re meant to have these weaknesses. I’ve shared my two cents about the deficiencies of our teeth, coming to the conclusion that there are simply some parts of the human body that have yet to evolve.

In the case of allergies, it almost feels like our bodies have some unspoken agreement with Mother Nature. For every billion people we populate the earth with, we must accept a million new allergens to even the odds. For every ten births, we lose someone to a peanut allergy. For every thirty, we get a fatal anaphylactic reaction to penicillin.

I’m not sure what to conclude about allergies, other than they suck.

I appreciate that the body has an immune system that reacts quickly to invasions from malicious bacteria and the like. When it works, it works. That’s awesome. Keep it up. But am I really going to have sneezing fits every time I walk outside to enjoy the spring? Will my mom never again taste a good clam chowder?

Probably not. David always wins in any rendition of the Goliath tale.

54. Grown ups

As a kid, I never thought that I’d still feel like a kid at age 25. I always thought being a grown up started somewhere after high school, when you drove a car and voted and kissed girls and stuff. I imagined this specific moment when I’d stop eating sugary cereal, enjoy green vegetables, start drinking beer, and grow hair on my arms and chest. Then I’d be an adult and no one would ever pinch my cheeks again.

The truth is, growing up doesn’t work like that.

At 25, I still feel the confusion and disconnection of a child. The world is still a mystery. I still don’t know what the hell is going on. The future certainly isn’t any clearer. I don’t have much hair on my chest, either.

I still eat sugary cereal.

According to the mirror and assumptions of those who’ve just met me, I look younger than I am. Especially if I shave. I’ve got youthful genes. I’ve also got an optimistic attitude and proceed through life in a consistent state of childlike wonderment, so perhaps this is part of the reason I still feel like a kid. I still feel like there are adults and that I’m not one of them.

So when does it happen? When will I feel like an official grown up?

There were a few significant moments in my recent past that felt like they were signifiers of “growing up,” even if I still didn’t feel like a grown up: the day I actually started to like beer, the day driving a car felt natural, and the day I passed the age of my father when I was born.

Maybe it happens with marriage or having kids. Maybe it comes with a career. Maybe it happens when you can say, “Back in my day,” with regularity to the yipper-snappers on the bus. Maybe it never happens.

I like that idea the most, that we never actually grow up.

After all, we’re always learning. There’s always something we don’t know. There’s always more to explore. Our bodies are always changing and our minds are changing right along with them. “Grown up,” to me, always implied a sense of finality, like the end of the race, this moment when you’d wake up as a completed, finished product. But that doesn’t happen. You’re never finished. Each day you’re a little different than the day before.

I guess the best thing we can do is take each year of our lives as the unique adventure that it is. Each year our body will go through some monumental shift, either physically or mentally, and we can either reject it or embrace it. Our opinions will change, our vision will worsen, our passions will flash and sizzle. We are always a year away from being grown up, but we’ll never actually be a grown up.

Even the full-grown tree continues to spread its roots.

53. Stuck in an elevator

Useful as they are, I’ve never trusted an elevator.

Here we’ve got this metal box in a shaft controlled by a fallible computer system suspended by machinery that requires consistent maintenance. There is a weight limit posted above the squeaky doors, but who knows how accurate that is.

I feel like most of those certificates they post claiming the elevator passed its examination are outdated by a decade. Anyway, we pay about as much attention to those certificates as we do the Terms & Conditions we blindly agree to on the internet.

The floor is sticky. The handrails are dirty. The lighting is awful and the occasional mirror-lined walls only make me feel more claustrophobic when I’m surrounded by clones.

Obviously whenever I can, I choose to take the stairs.

However, elevators do happen, especially when you’ve got work on the fifteenth floor and you don’t want to lug a briefcase and a belly full of Krispy Kreme donuts up a billion steps.

One good thing about elevators: those cables that control the fate of your life, every elevator has about five or six cables and each one of them, independently, can support the weight of the elevator. So barring any Dennis Hopper terrorist activities, you should be fine.

There is still the chance that your elevator will simply malfunction. One second you’re humming the theme song to Reading Rainbow, next thing you’re stuck between the eighth and ninth floors with a panic attack.

I imagine being trapped in an elevator is a lot like how Richard Dreyfus felt in the shark cage when Jaws was gnashing at the bars. Or maybe it’s closer to how Dave felt stuck outside of the spaceship, asking Hal to open the pod bay doors.

Hello, Elevator, do you read me?

I’m sorry, Chris, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

What astonishes me the most about this idea of being trapped in an elevator is how aware I am of its likelihood. Yes, the chances are low, but I’m not going to pretend like it’s not common. One day it will happen. I know it will. I better face up to that fact now, rather than let it blindside me at 5:45 on some quiet winter evening.

I think there is value in accepting such truths.

We shouldn’t fear the inevitable because the fear is futile. One day we will get stuck in an elevator, as sure as we’ll pay our taxes to the man and recycle our body to the earth. I think it’s time we consider how we’ll react when that moment comes.

Hopefully, with foresight, the panic will be subdued. Remember: those cables are strong and you’re not going to plummet to your death. All you have to worry about is starving or dying of thirst. But that takes time. Chances are, you’ll be rescued in less than an hour. Maybe.

It will be a good time to think about your life. I can imagine myself running through the list of all the little things that had to happen in my past that led me here, to this building, to this moment with this elevator. Imagine how different my day would’ve been if I’d skipped on the half-dozen original Krispy Kremes.

Maybe you’ll have a book. Maybe you’ll have companions with you. You’ll probably have cell signal, so you can always post dramatic Facebook updates and post photos of your rapid deterioration as the hours drag on.

This will be a good story.

Just sit tight. Help is on the way.

When it’s all done, you’ll feel as fresh as a sixteen year old with a learner’s permit. If getting stuck in an elevator is something that everyone has to do once, then you’ve checked it off your list. Congrats. Now, just hope this doesn’t happen to you:

52. Whale watching

How often do you think about whales? I’ll tell you right now you don’t think about whales enough. Strange, too, considering even the smallest of them is still around 11 feet long. They inhabit every ocean. They number in the millions. The biggest of them, the Blue Whale, floats around at nearly 100 feet long, often traveling alone, an enormous peaceful beast that could swallow humans whole but feeds instead on tiny crustaceans called krill. We take for granted the fact that whales would be a terrifying force if they could fly.

Did you know that Sperm Whales have the largest brain of any animal?

They’re warm-blooded mammals, evolved from land-dwelling creatures of yore, insulated by blubber (one of my favorite words ever) that lets them sink to ocean depths where the sun don’t shine. They’ve got lung access through holes in the top of their heads, so they stay mostly submerged while breathing, first sneezing out the water that filled in the blowhole while they were swimming. How cool is that?

Did you know that Orca Whales are considered apex predators? That means they have no natural predator. At over twenty feet long, you better hope that they never figure out a way to stage a global uprising. Who knows if all those Orcas we’ve got caged up in theme parks aren’t being captured and posted there on purpose to learn our weaknesses.

Did you know that whales never sleep?

Research has shown that their brains have similar structures as those of humans, which means they learn and cooperate and behave quite similarly to us. It’s even suggested that they’re capable of existential thoughts and emotions. I’ve always thought of whales as these secretly wise creatures with all the answers to the universe, sharing the truth of existence in their mournful whale songs that we simply can’t understand.

Whales aren’t the only under-appreciated creatures on the planet, but I think they’re the ones we overlook the most. I’ve never gone whale watching. The closest I’ve come to one is watching Planet Earth. This is a shame. They are such beautiful, majestic, mysterious creatures and we pretend like they’re not even there.

We forget how small we are sometimes, how there are other creatures out there that are, in my opinion, a lot more fascinating than some of the people I meet.

51. The coward test

I wanted to share a story that happened to me a few years ago when I was working at a coffee-shop in Santa Rosa. Regarding the setting: it was an old stone building with a private parking lot out back, neighboring a decommissioned train station, frequented by all variety of character. I was 19 years old and I was sitting in my Jeep on my brief lunch break.

Across the parking lot, I watched this guy in a green jacket approach the bike rack. He was homeless, maybe forty-five years old, with black sunglasses and baggy pants. This guy started yanking on my green bike chained to the rack just outside of the back entrance. I was a bit dumbfounded at first, bearing witness to this thievery in action, and from the driver’s seat of my Jeep I was unsure how to react.

Was this actually happening?

This green Huffy five-speed mountain-bike belonged to the mother of my ex-girlfriend and I’d been letting a friend borrow it for a few weeks and she hadn’t been using it, so the bike had been locked up for a while. Because of this emotional and physical detachment from the bike, I was calm and more curious about the situation than anything. That bike—though it was essentially mine—was very much not mine, at least not until the homeless guy snapped the lock off the rack.

Oh shit. He got it.

Suddenly all that detachment I felt came rushing back in a strange form. I suddenly very clearly saw myself telling people that I witnessed the robbery of my bike and did nothing to stop it. I imagined how disappointed people would be. How many lectures I would hear. How often people would bring that up in conversation and remind me of how cowardly I was.

Was I a coward?

This was a test.

But really? There I was on my lunch break, relaxing in my car, listening to music, and you didn’t even let me get through one song before you forced this moral dilemma in my face.

I got out of the car.

This was crazy. What was I going to say?

I had about forty feet to cover before I was close enough to say anything—me being a chronically soft speaker. I managed to squeak out a weak, “Hey,” but my voice caught in my throat. I was very nervous, after all, being one of the most non-confrontational people I know.

This homeless guy had freed my bike from the rack and was kicking up the kickstand, squeezing the handlebar with his thieving hands, and before I knew it he was peddling away.

Oh crap.

Rather than make a right turn out of the parking lot and disappear forever, he made a left turn, keeping him in sight. Knowing I couldn’t give up now, I backtracked across the parking lot to follow him as he coasted leisurely along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the chain-link fence, adjusting the gears as if he owned the bike.

What an asshole, I’m thinking.

I was walking. Not running. At no point did I demonstrate any sense of urgency or panic. An observer would not have thought that I was following someone trying to escape with my bike. I didn’t feel any urge—though the idea passed through my mind—to chase him down and beat him up. Violence seemed unnecessary and improbable, unless he hit me first.

I walked across the parking lot until I was at the far end where the fence separated me from Sixth Street, and I considered hopping the fence to continue pursuit but really hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Wouldn’t you know it—the guy turned left off Wilson and onto Sixth, on a path perpendicular to my own. He was going to pass right in front of me and suddenly, again, I was at a moment of necessary action. Do I shout at him? Do I hop the fence and stand in front of him? What do I say? What should I do?

I wondered if I was going to be late coming back from my break because of this. I thought about how I’d have to explain that my tardiness was caused by chasing a homeless bike-stealing man across Santa Rosa. For as unexpected and dreamlike this situation was, I had to keep reminding myself that it was happening and that I had to do something about it.

Across the street, a tall man in a black shirt stopped and waved to the bike thief—causing the Thief to set down his feet and stop riding for a moment. Now all of a sudden I found myself standing on one side of the fence directly opposite the Thief at the end of the parking lot, close enough to speak with the man, close enough to hop the fence and block his route. I was also close enough to overhear a conversation that went something like this:

Friend Across Street: “Hey! Nice bike!”

Thief: “Thanks. I just got it. A friend told me he’d seen it left here for a week.”

Friend Across Street (in the act of crossing the street): “Nice.”

Thief: “Easiest thing, too. Whew.”

It wasn’t long after that when the Friend noticed me standing there. He was the first one to give me a nod of acknowledgement, drawing the attention of the Thief, who turned as he sat on my bike and looked me up and down. The man in black was a thinner and more approachable-looking fellow, but just as untrustworthy in my book for being acquaintances with the Thief—and now both men were staring at me, waiting for me to speak.

The fate of my bike rested in the outcome of this moment.

I took a quick breath and held it.

Then, with a wouldn’t-you-know-it shrug, I said to the Thief, “That’s my bike.”

At first the words had no effect.

Then he asked me, “You’re serious?”

“Yeah. I work here,” I explained, my eyes locked on his. “It’s… My friend has been borrowing it. It’s my friend’s bike I’m borrowing from her.”

I didn’t know how else to go about this situation. I didn’t know how much I needed to defend my ownership of the bike—wasn’t it enough that I was bold enough to make such a claim to begin with? What did he think—that I saw him steal the bike and then quickly assembled some lie to con him out of it? My voice trembled a bit but I did my damnedest to stay strong. I’m not confrontational. I’m totally out of my element.

“You’re not just pulling my leg, are you?” he asked.

“No. It’s mine,” I said.

“It’s been left there for a week,” he tried.

I nodded. “I know why you took it,” I said. “I do. But it’s mine.”

The Thief sighed, defeated and unsure how to react.

In a moment of rare decisiveness, I firmly added, “And if you keep riding then I’m going to have to call the cops.”

The mention of the authority was what did it, I think, because no more than ten seconds after this thought pinballed around the man’s mind he began to get off the seat. How he must have felt—I had no idea. But there the guy was trying to steal my bike and I caught him red-handed and, probably a bit embarrassed, he stepped down. He really did.

It all felt kind of expected, honestly. In a strange way this felt like the exact way this situation was meant to unfold.

Then the Friend got involved and reached for the bike. “Let’s get it over the fence,” he said to the Thief and the two men hoisted the bike onto my side.

I gripped the handlebars, in case they changed their mind. It had been a while since I’d been in possession of this thing and yet it felt intimately familiar and a sudden wave of anger passed over me when I realized how close I came to losing it forever. I quickly went and locked it safely in the back of the Jeep.

The finale is anti-climactic. The whole story is anti-climactic, which I think is what bothers people the most about this story. “That was it?” they ask. “I would have called the cops right then,” some people say. But I didn’t. I had my bike back and no harm had really been caused—other than a severed lock—and in my book the universe was balanced, and that was that.

I think the moral of the story is similar to that of the tortoise and the hare. Don’t jump to confrontation. Don’t rush to conclusions. In the face of a test like this, remain calm and take it one step at a time. We’ll all have our Coward Test someday. Surprise yourself with how you react and you’ll be surprised by the outcome.

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.

49. The gym

Guest Thought from Ben Weinberg

:::

Hate it or love it, the gym has become tuned to the pulse of our society. With the increasing number and size of gyms, it seems like everyone and their mother has a membership these days. I think this is a positive trend. There are gyms for all folks, from the muscle-mass addicts to the casual weight lifter.

As I get older, going to the gym is becoming more and more a part of my weekly routine as my daily opportunities for exercise and fitness are starting to decline due to sheer laziness or the business of my schedule. Finding the motivation and perseverance needed to go work out after a long day at the office or school is a constant struggle. It makes me miss those days before college where I would participate in mandatory gym class during school and then do varsity sports after classes ended.

I think despite the crowded treadmills, overworked weight-lifting machines and the occasional interaction with the obnoxious guys who live for the gym experience 24/7, it’s not such a bad routine to get into for those who don’t really partake in it yet. It relieves stress, clears your mind and makes you stronger. People do a lot of things to make themselves feel good, why not add going to the gym to that list? Even if all we did at the gym was run a few laps or do a few good stretches, the results would be positive. If we all gave it a shot, it could lead to a fitter and happier world.

Who knows? You might just like it so much that you make a habit of it. Don’t over do it, of course, especially if you’re new to the scene. My body usually gets sore and aches if I go more than three times a week, but a little soreness is to be expected. The hard work of running, lifting, jumping, and stretching usually pays off if you put enough effort into it.

Unfortunately, most people in this world do not have the chance to go to the gym, and even more worrisome is how few people take the time to exercise and take care of their bodies. The gym is a luxury we often take for granted, but exercising should never be overlooked. We should never be too busy to be healthy.

It seems counter intuitive that the more developed a nation becomes, the higher the risk of obesity becomes. It seems we slip into unhealthy patterns when we should be taking more advantage of the opportunities we have. If not a gym, then something else: yoga, kick-boxing, rock climbing…

While the gym is not as accessible or as affordable as it should be, it’s a step in the right direction in terms of giving society the means to improve themselves physically and mentally if they so choose to. We should always be encouraging citizens to pursue healthy lives.

48. Magic of Mad Libs ®

You’re a kid again. Let’s say you’re _____________ (age) and it’s your first day of school. After scarfing down a/an __________ (food) for breakfast, you hop on the __________ (vehicle) and hurry along to first period English class.

The __________ (adjective) teacher has a game for the students to play. “Games in school?” you question such a thing. “Please. I’ll believe it when I __________ (present-tense verb) it.” The teacher proceeds to introduce you to Mad Libs.

Mad Libs is not exactly a game, nor is it a puzzle. It’s a mix between a __________ (noun) and a __________ (noun).

You’re given a series of fill-in-the-blank requests with no explanation of their purpose. Is this a test, you wonder, or some other _________ (adjective) form of torture? As you __________ (present-tense verb) in the blanks, you think of __________ (adjective) examples. In the space for ‘body part,’ you __________ (present-tense verb) and write: __________ (body part).

Eventually the truth is revealed. Your examples are parts of a story. Suddenly you’ve got this __________ (adjective) creation in your hands. You’re __________ (gerund verb) hysterically at your desk. What madness! You’ve never felt so ____________ (emotion).

What makes the result of the Mad Libs so appealing? The unknown, perhaps. The absurdity. The __________ (present-tense verb). You’ve taken a/an __________ (adjective) story and made it __________ (adjective). You did. With your words.

It shows children they are creators. It shows children they can __________ (present-tense verb) anything. Words are powerful. A/an __________ (adjective) word can make you ____________ (present-tense verb) while the image of a/an __________ (noun) can change your opinion of __________ (historical event) forever.

Mad Libs lets children know they can be __________ (adjective). It encourages them to experiment with __________ (plural noun) and is meant to inspire creativity whenever they __________ (present-tense verb). It teaches them the power of words. It inspires them to try new __________ (things). They’ll look back and think: Wow, I really could have __________ (past-tense verb) anything.

This isn’t an activity only for children or teachers. If you’re a __________ (job title), then think of other ways to incorporate Mad Libs into your life. This is less about the __________ (activity) and more about the philosophy.

Leave blanks in your plans. Improvise. __________ (present-tense verb). Experiment. Don’t live a life prewritten. There is magic in the not knowing. Try new nouns, seek new adjectives, experiment with new verbs, like __________ (gerund verb). Before you know it, your life will become a whole lot more __________ (adjective).

Trust me when I say __________ (poignant closing statement).

47. Back to school

Guest Thought from Cheryl Carvalho

:::

When my daughter was a little girl I remember she loved back-to-school shopping. We’d acquire armloads of bags teeming with fresh supplies for the coming year. New shoes with spotless soles begged to be scuffed by a game of tag on the playground. Colorful, waxy crayons sharpened to perfection and lined up like soldiers in their box anxious to become treasured art. But maybe it was the empty notebooks that really got to her. The blank pages beckoned to be scribbled upon as she itched to spill her many thoughts. We’d remove tags, tear off stickers and stuff her pencil box with blunt scissors and hope. Hope for good grades & decent cafeteria food. Hope for nice teachers and to fit in with the cool people. This ritual of buying hope and new pencils has a beguiling fragrance with the power to bring a grown adult like myself back in time to Mrs. Walker’s 3rd grade class. The memory of Joe Flint stealing my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup still stings. We played on outdoor equipment that would make today’s moms gasp in horror. The year wore on and my crayons wore down. The broken ones could be found next to the crumpled homework at the bottom of my locker.

46. Flight home

When I stepped off the international flight from Beijing to Seattle, I felt like a madman in the making. Not the Don Draper variety but something closer to Charles Manson.

Bloodshot eyes, shaky limbs, unkempt hair, two-day old outfit… I stunk like a zoo and I’d gone more than nine hours without any human interaction beyond what was required to ask for “coffee” and “chicken” from the bubbly attendants.

Over the Atlantic, we were travelling backward through time, and I watched the sun set and rise in the middle of the day, in what felt like a single breath. It was about a nine-hour flight across the ocean, but by my clock it only lasted about two hours.

If you don’t know what that feels like, imagine writing nine essays in a row but only two of them count for a grade and you still get carpal tunnel in your wrists.

What kept me sane was knowing I was almost home.

When I landed in Seattle after seven and a half months abroad, the first thing I noticed was the standard North American plug outlet: two simple vertical slits, like cat’s eyes. I’d spent over half the year using a converter, which was about as useful to me now as an empty Bic lighter.

My mind was filled with the poor quality echoes of gunfights and car chases from the droll I watched on a tiny screen with cheap headphones. Denzel was being Denzel in “Safe House.” Wahlberg made smuggling look easy in “Contraband.” At least I finally got around to watching Cruise meet his autistic brother, Dustin “Rain Man” Hoffman, a classic that’s been on my list for a while. I tried to watch “Juno” again but it felt like a movie made to make itself laugh while ignoring the viewer completely, so I changed the channel and doubted the movie even noticed I wasn’t watching.

My favorite part of any flight is the complimentary meals.

I love the creative ways they manipulate chicken and pasta and fish and vegetarian dishes into plastic containers. I love the tiny plastic silverware. Everything, wrapped in plastic. Today I ate something like a sausage with something like an omelet with what might’ve been mushrooms. Nothing you eat at cruising altitude is the same as what you’d eat at sea level. It’s hardly food. It’s an experiment in culinary efficiency and you are always a guinea pig.

My second-favorite part of the flight is the view out the window: the way clouds over China look like puffs of cotton floating in a murky gray soup, the way you can see the curve of the planet, the way you can see other planes below you and ocean liners are but little tic-tacs on a glimmering blue table cloth.

Coming back to my home country was bizarre, just like they said it would be. Americans surrounded me in all their various colors and shapes. The English language was readily available. People were impatient again.

I found myself surrounded by my native language but with no real urge to use it.

You become surprisingly accustomed to being away from your home country after a half-year abroad. This includes being quieter and more introspective. You’ve forgotten what small-talk feels like.

Strange, the feeling that gnaws at you in those final days before your departure, when you wish for just a few weeks more to do all those things you never got around to doing abroad.

Word of caution: international transfers in Beijing are a doozy.

On the approach to Sacramento, I realized that my travel story was truly coming to an end. I could feel the lightness of that final page in my hand, the last few paragraphs flashing by too quickly, and the tender closing of the book as the wheels touched down.

Like most travelers, I can’t recommend traveling enough. I know it can be expensive, but the cost will soon be forgotten and the reward will be priceless. Aim for some place beautiful. See a foreign waterfall. Meet a foreign friend. Eat a foreign meal you can’t pronounce. Fall in love with (or in) a foreign city.

My adventure began with an arrival in snow-blanketed İstanbul and it ended with a warm summer day in California.

Tomorrow it will all feel like a dream.

45. Being late

Guest Thought from Rob Risucci

:::

Being late can ruin my entire day.

I’m not quite sure when my propensity for punctuality became so prevalent. I would assume it was in my early teen years when my chronically unpunctual family would arrive late and noisily to events and I would cringe at the stares I imagined we received when our dramatic entrance interrupted the proceedings already underway.

I recently immigrated to Sonoma County, California. My quest to explore and navigate this beautiful place has taken me down a plethora of windy two-lane roads. The blur outside my car window is a vast myriad of luxurious vineyards backed up against the valley and as I pass, my eyes flicker from one vinery logo to the next, each beckoning me to come have a taste-test.

If I weren’t in a hurry, maybe I’d consider it.

Today this usually enchanting two-lane road has forced its meandering and lazily curvy attitude on me and I just don’t have the time for it. Furiously impatient, locked in at a mere twenty-five mph behind the world’s most despised Fed-Ex truck and falling into a fouler mood mile by grueling mile, I sink lower in my seat, grind my teeth and succumb to the inevitable: I’m going to be late.

I hate being late.

In this specific case, irony laughs at me as I remember modifying on a whim the résumé I dropped off two weeks ago for the interview I am now hurtling towards to read “never late” in my About Me section. How swell.

I remember swearing silently under my breath whenever I arrived late with my family and to never allow myself to continue in that trend “when I grew up.”  Surprisingly, for the most part, I’d say I’ve been successful. After announcing my topic to a friend just now and hearing her guffaw I’m gathering that not everyone agrees with my alluded success in that area but awareness is key, right? Haha…

Luckily for me in this instance my interviewer was about 45 seconds later than myself and so I escaped detection. I got the job and now look forward to traversing that damned road for at the least 25 minutes each direction each day.

Although, in case of another dastardly Fed-Ex truck encounter, it would behoove me to give myself an hour cushion, eh? Either that or I need to grow some wings.

44. Water

Did anyone else actually hate drinking water when they were a kid? I don’t remember this being an especially long phase, but I certainly recall a period of my life when drinking water was about as fun as eating vegetables. Didn’t matter if I’d spent all day running around sweating, or if I was deathly thirsty—water was the last thing on my mind. Water had no taste, no color, no fizz, no sweet odor, no life.

Water was boring.

Of course now, grown up, I recognize the value of good, clean water. I’m lucky that such a substance spews regularly from the tap in the kitchen. I drink water much more often now, and the taste, while indescribable, is refreshing in the way that a good breath of air is refreshing. The body wants it (being, as it is, composed of 60% water) and the body’s happy when it gets it, so that’s all that matters.

I’ve come to appreciate water even more now that I’ve travelled the world a bit and been places where drinking tap water was a health risk and paying for bottled was the only access you had. Good luck getting ice in your drink.

It still boggles my mind that we live on a planet that’s 75% water and we still have a problem with getting people clean water to drink. Yes, that 75% is basically all salt water, but don’t we have the technology to desalinize it? We can put a robot on Mars but we’re still letting people die of thirst?

Shipping out bottled water to the billion people without drinkable water won’t exactly benefit the planet, since that much plastic would just settle into the environment about as nicely as a tumor. Plus it’s not like that’s a long-term solution. We’d have to send out another billion bottles the next day. All we’d be doing is keeping Aquafina in business and diverting money from water sanitation and distribution.

So what do we do?

Conserve water. Guarantee water rights. Prioritize human health.

Most of all: make sure everyone everywhere grows up knowing that water is crucial to your health, that it is not to be overlooked simply because it is tasteless and clear, and that you will die of thirst before you die of hunger. And Gatorade is not a substitute.

So if you’re an athlete, or if you’re a busy mother, or you’re often found hiking up mountains, or you’re planning a night of drinking on the town, or you’re taking the dog for a walk, or you’re any living human being, then get some water in your body. It might not be the most exciting drink in the world, but it’s the most useful.

Someday I hope everyone has easy access to good water.

In the meantime, if you’ve got a kid that thinks water is dull and prefers juice or cola, remind them how lucky they are that they get any water at all. Now, about getting them to eat their vegetables… That’s another battle entirely.

43. Breaking the seal

I’m not drunk, but I was like ten minutes ago before I went pee. Too much information? Well that’s what I’ve been thinking about. Why does drinking alcohol make you hafta pee so much? The logic in me says, “Well any liquid you input will have to output eventually.” Yeah, sure, but how come it feels like we pee way more than we drink?

Well, this is because alcohol is a diuretic.

Other diuretics include: coffee, cranberry juice, green tea, and water.

A diuretic tells your kidneys to clear out your bladder a lot more often. Your kidney says, “I just went pee like five minutes ago,” but your brain doesn’t care. Your brain thinks you’re doing this on purpose. It’s only doing what it was designed to do. The heavy intake of alcohol is literally telling the kidney to stop absorbing liquid and to flush it out as soon as possible. This is done, says research, by reducing the production of the vasopressin hormone.

This is why we try so hard not to break the seal.

There’s nothing worse than having to pee every five minutes. It sucks. On top of that, you risk the chance of dehydration, which doesn’t bode well with anyone’s plans for the evening.

Anyway, the point of this thought is to encourage everyone to drink more water. Drunk or not, water doesn’t encourage your kidneys to flush your bladder every ten minutes. Drink enough water and yes, you’ll hafta pee soon enough, but it keeps your vasopressin hormones alone. And when you are drunk, it helps balance out your kidneys and keep you away from the bathroom and more involved with whatever party, concert, or solitary moment you’d rather pay attention to.

I’ve had my fair share of drunk nights. I know the curse of the broken seal.

It’s our body’s way of telling us that we’re on track to have a wild night we’ll never remember. Drinking water might not help you steer clear of repeated visits to the toilet, but it’ll at least keep you hydrated and prevent a hangover.

Drink safe, friends.

42. Crying

When I was little, my mom cried a lot. I would find her in the basement behind the water heater and the flower press, crying. It was terrifying to see her crying, but there was an intimacy in sitting with her as she did. Those were emotional days. There was a lot going on. My mom was pregnant, working full time, and taking care of my brother and I. There was a lot of family drama, too.

Anyways, when I was a teenager I was introduced to the idea that crying was a form of manipulation. Crying is what women did when they wanted to evade responsibility for something they had done. Crying was weakness, it was fear. These messages came from all over. Some of them were direct, as in actual words coming out of actual mouths of actual, albeit confused, people. They came from all walks of life. Some of them were power hungry, others were limp and defeated, but then again both were just different sides to the same coin.

Sometimes negative messages about crying came indirectly. The crying woman at the bank was crazy. People avoided her. People cried alone. In movies, it was a very pretty thing, this crying. But in reality, crying made you ugly. Your makeup ran. You retched if it was bad enough. So when the lump rose in your throat and your eyes began to water, people were always responding anxiously. “Don’t cry,” they were always saying. “Don’t cry.”

Well, screw it.

It’s my life, and I’ll cry if I want to.

I’m a born crier and so are you.

You were born crying, that is how you took your first breath. Your cry sent the power of life into your lungs. That should be the message we learn about crying- it comes to us in birth and throughout our whole lives it is a method of re-birth. Breathe, let go, cry your heart out.

To cry is to surrender. It is the most humbling thing you can do. It is not shameful. We all have weakness. Our strength comes in acknowledging this weakness, in allowing it to exist, and in letting it leave us. When it leaves us, when we cry, strength comes. This is why sometimes, if the cry is good enough, you feel good after you cry. It is catharsis. You have surrendered, recognized the child that still lives in you, forfeited your petty claims to power, knelt down to the earth, and howled. In doing so, you hand over the burdens that don’t belong to you, which are weighing you down. You admit you can’t carry them, and they leave you. Sometimes you pick them back up again and then later, you cry more. People go their whole lives picking up their burdens and laying them down. Sometimes they pick up different ones and sometimes they pick up the same ones, but they keep on going in the same pattern. Picking them up, laying them down. Whether you want to continue picking up your burden is up to you. But everyone, at some point, must stop for a rest and put it down. Everyone cries.

It’s not shameful to cry. It takes immense courage. The whole world is built on the illusion of strength, but strength needs weakness, and vice versa, to be sustainable. Everything needs renewal. Everyone has burdens. When you lay them down, you can smile more brightly and see more clearly.

Manipulation comes in all forms and yes, sometimes people use artificial tears in this way. But whatever. Leave them to their own woes. They are miserable because they are powerless, they have surrendered their power but to someone else. Crying for manipulation puts your power in someone else’s hands. If that someone else responds to your tears, you get what you want. But if they don’t respond, then you don’t get what you want. And in the meantime, people are hardened to tears because they have been misused.

Follow your own emotions. If someone has fooled you with tears, then so what. That is on them, not you. It is not shameful for a person to respond to something so instinctual and human as crying. Be proud that you feel your heart, that you are a fool. There are enough clichés in the world to teach you about the wisdom of the fool.

But keep in mind that it is not your duty to comfort someone who is crying. They are putting down their burdens. They are releasing. Leave them be. You do not need to come up and take their burden, you do not need to help them. They are helping themselves simply by crying. They are brave. Don’t pity them or patronize them to get them to stop crying. Don’t fear crying. If their tears move you, then you can cry with them. But don’t give them sympathy and don’t manipulate them to get them to stop crying.

Crying is movement. Go with it. Go it alone. This doesn’t mean you can’t cry with company, but when you cry be alone. In a room full of people, be alone. Turn inward and let what is going to happen happen to you. Whatever leaves you is not yours. Let it go. Whatever stays put is maybe not ready yet. Keep waiting. It will leave when it’s ready.

41. Snails

Maybe you’ve heard this one before: A guy steps out of his house to grab the newspaper, and he sees a snail on the porch, sliming up his headlines. So he picks up the snail and tosses it away. Two years later, guy hears a knock on his door and answers it, but there’s no one there. Minute later, another knock, and this time the guy looks down to see the snail. The snail looks up at him and says, “Hey! What the hell was that for?”

My point is snails are stupendously slow creatures.

Obviously they’ve got different priorities than us, but I can’t help but marvel over their slow-motion existence in this fast-paced world. They dally along using muscle strength and mucus secretion, altogether oblivious of the world around them, like old ladies in the grocery market (minus the ooze). Did you know they only move one centimeter per second?

So what do these shelled slugs even do? Why have them around?

Gardeners hate them because snails will stage hostile takeovers at any available garden. Roots, stems, fruits and leaves will feel the wrath of the hungry snail’s gooey radula (a rough ribbon of tiny teeth). Did you know snails eat limestone and other minerals in order to strengthen their shells? So of course the gardeners set out poison to kill them and wrap their tree trunks in copper lining to keep the snails at bay.

To be fair, the snails are just doing what they’re made to do: crawl around and eat things. Which I suppose is not a bad purpose to have in life for a creature that takes an entire afternoon just to cross the sidewalk. At least the snail has a purpose. It knows where it fits in the world. So what if I’m little and slow? At least I’m doing something with my life, it says.

Yet we still don’t give snails much respect. I remember the first (and only) time I ever poured salt onto a live snail. The effect absolutely terrified me. I don’t recommend you ever try it, even if you are a vindictive gardener out for revenge for last year’s crop failures. Imagine the same thing happening to you! We’re all guilty of crushing at least a dozen snails in our lifetime, since they’re not quite evolved enough to steer clear of the sidewalks. And who hasn’t plucked one from the ground to ogle at it up close and watch its slimy little body wriggle? They are such strange looking creatures. Maybe we have shell envy.

Did you know snails mate for hours at a time?

I’m not saying we all need to go out and adopt a snail, or that the French need to stop eating them, but I think we ought to take a moment to consider what can be learned from the slow-moving species. They don’t rush things. They don’t mean any harm. They scoot along this Earth at their own pace and take whatever’s given to them. They don’t fight or hunt. They don’t sting or poison. They’re just squishy and weird, but they’ve got their role figured out, probably more than some of us humans do.

We should take our time. We should mean no harm. Maybe we’ll come across our proverbial garden someday and know what it is we were meant to do with our lives.

40. Buying happiness

I tried a debate with some middle-school students a while ago with this statement written on the board: You don’t need money to be happy. Mind you, these were students of a different country speaking in a language they were still learning, but they were able to convey thoughts and arguments well enough to fill a forty minute class. You don’t need money to be happy, I wrote on the board. Then I pitted two teams against each other: this half agrees and this half disagrees. Now, debate!

You have to wonder how it came to this.

This is actually something we need to debate. Can you be happy without money? Well, it’s a cultural thing, isn’t it? All that we’re aware of is poverty in our own countries, unless we’ve spent a good amount of time evaluating the societies of other nations. I’m not about to answer this question for the whole world because money is a different beast in every country. One man’s wealth might mean nothing to another. One man’s happiness does not equate to happiness around the globe.

The students prefer to think that money isn’t necessary to be happy. They think the totem pole of happiness is built with family, then friends, then health. However, the working-class logic asks how they expect to find a home, buy food, and afford clothing without money. If you can’t afford the cost of living, you will suffer, and can you be happy while you suffer?

The consumer-driven cultures of the world have no good response for that.

I don’t, either.

There are countries where people have no money but view poverty much differently. They don’t need money the way many countries do. They use alternatives to cash and coin, like bartering. They only use what the need. They’ve lived perfectly fine without a checkbook. They know nothing of credit limits and overdraft charges. Surely, without money in the way that I think of money, they are still capable of equal happiness.

In a self-sufficient, ideal situation, happiness should have nothing to do with the balance of your bank account. Yet because of the culture I was born into, I’m of a different mindset, one that seems difficult to break out of. While I like to think I don’t let money rule my life, I know that money presents a barrier before my idea of a comfortable lifestyle. Even the low spending, bike-and-bus riding, thrift shopping people come up against this currency barrier on the regular.

Everything needs money to operate. You have to work to make money. They take money from your paycheck to pay for your government.

So, do you need money to be happy? No, I guess you don’t. You need love. You need comfort. But in many countries, you need money to pay bills, to clothe yourself (or buy materials to make your own clothes), to possess a home, to travel far distances, and to visit doctors when your health is poor. Basically, you need money to stay afloat.

People get help from their governments. Food-stamps and the like. They can reach out for assistance. I say, if you’ve got that figured out and you’ve got love in your life, then you’re on track to be happier than the wealthiest lonely person. Money can’t buy happiness, but it makes it easier to prioritize happiness over other basic needs. And if you’ve got an alternative lifestyle that keeps money out of the picture, and you’re comfortable and happy, then I’m proud of you. I think the want/need for money is a poison we take too willingly.

Some of us are stuck in the financial whirlwind.

We’re all capable of reaching our happiness.

I just wish the path wasn’t paved in dollar signs.

 

39. Dads

Guest Thought from Rob Risucci

:::

Dads…

If you’re reading this, you have one.

We know them, we know of them; we’ve never known them.

We loathe them; we love them… we nothing them.

Others say they see them in us: in a yawn, in a sarcastic response, in a nose, a hairline… And in the depths of a mirror searching, sometimes we see them, too.

We all, at some point, look back at them quizzically, sometimes resentfully, and then lean to peer as far down our endless swaying chain of known ancestry as possible from our vantage point at the front. What we see tells us who we are… It explains us.

We carry with us the traits and likeness of who came before us. For some, this is a fearsome reality and for others an immense source of pride. There are too, more than there should be, a group of us who are tragically blind to this side of their heritage and origin.

Despite inhabiting a generation (us) that prides itself on individualism and a teeming zealotry for the enlightened and new-normal, such backward scrutiny paints a picture for some that should not be lightly discarded in favor of a new start or laughed off in a scoffing of an older and sadly close-minded generation.

We are links. If it is within your ability and availability to look rearward at your dad and take stock of him, to acknowledge him or just know who and what he is then I implore you to not discard your chance. It is precious, and for those of us who have lived our lives blindly when it comes to glimpsing our own inherited identity, it something we have only dreamed of.

Do not tarry pettily.

However gruesome, however wonderful, however despicable or however warmly familiar it may be…

…Go meet your dad.

38. Sleep varieties

Ever have one of those sleeps where you close your eyes at night and the next instant it’s morning and you’re wide awake? Feels like no time passed at all. Feels like a trick. Did any time actually pass? Sure, the sun’s out, but you start to think there’s been a mistake. It couldn’t have gone by that fast. You didn’t even have a chance to dream.

Or what about the sleep that yanks you back at the last second? There you are, slowly falling asleep, sinking down into dreamland, and just before you’ve settled in for the night, sleep conjures up a falling sensation to startle you, or makes you feel like you’re tripping, and in the real world you bolt upright trying to catch yourself. Welcome back to the waking world, sucker.

Maybe nothing is worse than the reluctant sleep cycle. You’ve probably got something you need to wake up early for. Too bad. You’ll be waking up every half hour for no reason at all. Hope you like watching informercials.

Then there’s the sensitive sleep, which lets you rest but only in total darkness and complete silence. If so much as a flicker of light or whisper breaks the charm, you’ll be wide awake in an instant. It’s like you’ve suddenly acquired Spidey-Sense, but not for fighting crime, just for fighting against REM.

There’s the heavy sleep, which is basically when a two-ton elephant sits on your brain and puts you into an overnight coma. Literally nothing will wake you up. You could sink with the Titanic. You’ll wake up with drool all over your pillow and still, somehow, feel tired.

Of course sometimes you get those sleeps full of really weird, miserable, dysfunctional, twisted dreams. It’s like you went to bed watching A Clockwork Orange through a kaleidoscope while listening to the audio book of Stephen King’s greatest hits after eating lots of shellfish for dinner.

Sometimes you’re too cold when you sleep, sometimes you’re too hot. Sometimes no position is comfortable. Sometimes you fall asleep in  your clothes. Some people sleep walk. Some people snore. Some people talk in their sleep, and some people sleep with their eyes open. We’re certainly odd creatures when we’re unconscious.

It’s a strange thing, sleep. We need it, but sometimes it feels like sleep is working against us.

And what’s the deal with this formula?

  • 0 – 2 hours: fully rested.
  • 2 – 5 hours: kill me now.
  • 5 – 8 hours: rested enough.
  • 8 + hours: exhausted.

I’ll never understand that…

37. Road trips

I’m not speaking from experience, because I’ve yet to take the quintessential road trip, but I’ve thought about it a lot and the more connections I make with people across the country, the more plausible the idea appears. The road trip feels like something that all of us who live in the United States are supposed to do at some point in our lives.

I’m not talking about an eight hour drive from San Francisco to San Diego. I’ve done that.

I’m talking about the two-week voyage from coast to coast. I’m talking about miles of flat farmland and desert between the peaks and valleys of our country’s expansive landscape. I’m talking about seeing stars at night on the side of a desolate highway. I’m talking about roadside diners and sleeping in back seats and eating canned beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m talking about listening to the radio on full with the windows rolled down as you pass borders at back-to-the-future speeds. I’m talking about getting behind the wheel with the beach at your back and not stopping until it’s in front of you again.

The road trip.

I’ve idolized it plenty, but I’ve come at it logically. I wanted to meet people that I could visit along the way. I wanted to save up the money I’d need to get there and back again. Sure, you could just wing it, but I wanted to make sure it would work.

I’ve got some rules, too, for whenever I get on the road:

  1. No GPS. Only the old-school folding maps allowed.
  2. No Mp3 devices. Only radio, static and all.
  3. No backtracking. If I miss a turn, then I change my route.
  4. No computer. It’s time to look up from the keyboard.
  5. No giving up. No turning back.

The whole idea is very romanticized, especially in the media. One can be wary of such a portrayal. But from those who’ve made such journeys before, I hardly hear any big complaints. The challenges they faced made them stronger. The people they met changed them forever.

Maybe it reminds us of life back in the days of the Oregon Trail, or Lewis and Clark. We are an adventurous culture and we quest for the great unknown, or to search for new life in distant lands. I’m not looking to migrate permanently. I just want the adventure.

Someday, maybe next summer, I want to do this.

It’s a test of endurance. It’s a test of improvisation and patience. It’s somewhat insane and altogether a big expensive vacation, but there’s still something magical and respectable about the idea.

It’s you and the road, through thick and thin, through rain and shine, through popped tires and stomach aches and sleepless nights and bug bites. It’s you and your country, one in the same, and you’ll see things and meet people you’d never see from cruising altitude in a plane, or blazing along in the coach section of an Amtrak train.

Mark your calendars. Set aside some time. The road is calling.

36. Breathing in tunnels

Does anyone else still hold their breath when they’re in a car going through a tunnel? I can’t seem to kick the habit, and no matter how long that tunnel is, I’ll turn blue before I dare exhale underground.

What’s the big idea? I hope I’m not alone in this bizarre ritual.

The closest logical explanation I can come up with for not breathing in a tunnel is the concern that dust and mountain guts will fill our lungs. Who knows what hazardous vapors or airborne chemicals we might’ve unearthed out from the bowels of the planet? In a car or not, the rumor spread that if you didn’t hold your breath during passage through a tunnel, you’d come out on the other side with a lung full of ancient cancer-causing mountain extract.

Or maybe it’s a little more fantastical.

Maybe it’s not the physical remnants of a hollowed planet we’re worried about, but the unforgiving soul of Mother Earth that we fear. I mean, if someone carved a tunnel through my skin, I’d be a little pissed. I can see how our ancestors might’ve come to consider tunnels as passageways of bad omens, of a sign that humanity had gone a step too far in its reconstruction of the planet. Who were we to blast holes into mountains? Who were we to dig corridors through Earth’s fine soil?

Maybe we hold our breath because inside those tunnels we are susceptible to Mother Earth’s angry, grasping fingers, looking to choke out the souls who ravaged its surface. Obviously that’s not true, since countless people commute through tunnels without harm every day, and I doubt they’re all holding their breath.

So why do it? What keeps this seemingly ridiculous pattern alive? To this day I try my damnedest not to breathe in a tunnel (hypocritically, however, not when I’m riding the subway).

I suppose it could be superstition, the same kind that sends salt over shoulders. There’s comfort in them, if not some degree of insanity. Comfort in rituals. Comfort in at least attempting to thwart whatever back luck or ill omen was once imagined to result from a lack of said ritual. I mean, we don’t want to tempt fate.

In truth, this is a form of engrained fear. I don’t know why I hold my breath in tunnels, but I’m pretty sure I do it because I don’t want to find out what happens if I don’t. Strange, the power of superstition.

Strange, that we can follow an idea without ever really knowing why.

My point is, I suppose, is to question those small habits we still hold onto. Question our rituals and ask ourselves if it’s time we broke those rituals. Breathe in the tunnels, spill salt, tempt fate, and take control of yourself again.

35. Tickling

Let’s build a human. Let’s give them a complex nervous system, a powerful brain, and upright mobility. Let’s encourage estensive communicative abilities, give them the opportunity to increase their muscle strength, and throw in some opposable thumbs. Alright, so we’ve got a human.

No, wait, let’s make them ticklish.

Um, what?

I can see it now: the powers-that-be, organizing a meeting to discuss the development of the humans, and everyone’s throwing out good ideas, and the creativity is flowing and people are getting excited, sketching out this masterpiece. A four-chambered heart! Eyelids! Let’s use cartilage to save some money on bone! How about we use a ribcage to protect the vital organs? Genius!

Just before finalizing the layout, some fool in the back who hasn’t said anything all day blurts out passionately, “I wanna make them ticklish!”

And everyone looks at him, confused, for they’ve never heard of this adjective before.

“It means I want them to have parts of their body that, when touched, will render them useless, overwhelming them with laughter and watery eyes, and it will sometimes be so severe they’ll have trouble breathing!”

And the others, they must’ve felt bad for this guy, since everyone else had contributed something. “But why?” asked the one who came up with eardrums. “Why give them a weakness?”

“It’s not a weakness,” said tickle guy. “Everyone loves to laugh.”

This they could not argue. The one who developed laughter shrugged and said, “Maybe he has a point.”

“Which parts of the body should be ticklish?” they asked.

Tickle guy said, “Definitely the neck, and under the arms, and behind the knees. I guess the whole knee, actually. Maybe the belly, too. I guess the bottoms of the feet would work. And maybe anywhere that’s touched with the slightest graze. In fact, how about we make the whole body ticklish, but have the intensity of the areas vary from person to person?”

“Seems like the humans might get annoyed with this vulnerability,” said the one who thought of the brain. “It could render them incapable of critical thinking.”

“No way. They’ll love it. They’ll be laughing all the time.”

So it was. Humans were made ticklish, and this is the best explanation I could come up with. Because seriously, why we have parts of our body that evoke oftentimes painful spasms of unwarranted laughter, I have no idea. Oh well. At least we laugh when we’re tickled, and I’ll never argue against a good laugh, although I question said laughter if it feels like torture.

34. Horror and spice

I equate a good horror movie to a really spicy meal. When a movie is really scary, it gets your heart racing, it makes you sweat, and it makes you uncomfortable in your seat. A spicy meal will do the same thing. Both the movie and the meal are a form of self-abuse, if you think about it. We knowingly bring terror into our lives or we knowingly set our tongues and mouths on fire. But why?

I’d argue first and foremost that it’s because of the rush.

Can I handle this? Can I handle watching The Ring in the dark? Can I handle a full bite of jalapeño chili? I’ll never know unless I try, and even if it brings me to tears, I can’t give up once I’ve started. There’s more at stake here than simply watching a movie or eating a meal. This is about taking your heart and stomach on a rollercoaster with no brakes. This is about pushing your psychiatric well-being to its snapping point and giving your sweat glands a work-out. That’s the rush.

We watch horror movies as a way of release, and we eat spicy foods as a way of cleansing.

After a good horror movie, I feel elated. I feel like a survivor. I’ve just witnessed sheer terror and probably jumped out of my skin a half dozen times, and I’m sure I spent half the time cowering behind my knees with a hand held over my mouth. All that stress, all that tension, it fills me up like a balloon and, eventually, something will burst out of the shadows and pop that stress balloon–perhaps resulting in an embarrassing shriek. It feels good. When I’m watching a horror movie, I’m not thinking about my job, my school work, my taxes, or my petty concerns. There are people in much greater danger than I am on the screen, and I can take comfort in knowing that no matter how crappy my day was, at least I’m not being chased down by a man in flesh mask wielding a chainsaw.

Spicy food does the same thing. Most of the food we eat, delicious as it is, doesn’t really affect you the way spicy food does. A plate of spaghetti does not have the same physical impact as a bad-ass salsa. We seek the cleanse, which comes not specifically from the food, but the results that come from eating it. Truly spicy food will make your face turn red. It’ll wreck havoc on your digestive system. It’ll make you wish you’d never been born. Yet the abuse is somehow tolerated because, in the end, we feel better and we feel stronger. If we can survive that cayenne red pepper sauce, we can survive anything. The sweat, the charred roof of your mouth, and the feeling that you’ve just swallowed a bucket of hot coals is completely validated once the burning goes away. You’ve just sweated out a bunch of toxins and forced your body into immediate survival mode. It’s a wake up call, a test. This is cleansing, even if it hurts, and this is why we do it.

We need a good release. We deserve a good cleanse now and then. We’re a species with a tendency to worry too much, to fear too much, and to repress too much. This leads to toxic build up.

Let that stuff out. Stretch yourself. Go see a scary movie, release that tension. Go eat some spicy food, cleanse your taste-buds.

And if you want, find an alternative. Find another way to feel the rush and push your limits. You’ll feel remarkably better afterward.

33. Animal uprising

I’m all about reading articles that give me hope for mankind. I like hearing that goodness and compassion still exists, that helpful inventions and progressive actions are being made, and that we’re not the lazy, selfish, cruel creatures that the evening news often paints us to be.

But I like stories like this, too:

“Gorillas Seen Dismantling Deadly Poacher Traps.”

On one hand, the article makes note that there are still plenty of lazy, selfish, cruel people among us. Poachers kill for fun and profit, knowing they’re eradicating species from the planet. This is a shame. It’s a sad and terrible truth that some people don’t know how to share.

But the point of the article is not a tirade against poaching. This article focuses instead on the targeted gorillas of said poachers, and the remarkable trap-dismantling behavior they’ve demonstrated lately. The article says such behavior has been observed before, but now the young gorillas are dismantling traps just like their parents, spotting traps that people overlook. The knowledge is being passed down through generations.

This gives me hope for the animal kingdom. It speaks volumes about what they’re capable of, without our help, and it goes to show that we might think we’re the supreme species on the planet, but given enough time, they will outsmart us. We are not as special as we think. Poachers beware: soon the gorillas will not only be tearing down your traps, but they’ll learn how they work, and it will be you caught in a noose one of these days, left to dangle in the forest for all the creatures to see. Humans be warned: the animals are watching us, and they are learning, and if we continue to disrespect them…

Remember the monkeys from the movie Jumanji who stole a cop car?

We need to stop poachers, yes. We need to be kind to animals, yes. But more than that, we need to get down off our pedestal and recognize the truth that no species can be dominant forever. The sooner we respect our fellow four-legged, winged, and underwater neighbors on this planet, the less likely they’ll turn against us.

32. Dentists

Last time I thought about teeth and how much I hate them. No offense, teeth, but you suck.

There are people who do like teeth, though. They make a living off of them. They are the dentists, the masked people in white coats with armies of assistants and pointy, metal tools. They’ll claw the plaque right off your canines. They’ll suck the saliva out of your mouth with a hose and shoot you full of Novocain like it’s liquid candy. This is what they do. Every day. They drill and extract and root canal the teeth of society.

Honestly, I like dentists.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, because I used to be terrified of the dentist. I remember being a kid waiting for a dentist appointment, reading Highlights Magazine to block out the rising panic in my chest. I hated that stupid lamp they pulled over your head to blind you with. And the smell of fluoride. What if I had a cavity? What if they told me I wasn’t brushing enough? What if they had to surgically remove all my teeth and replace them with metal robot teeth? Noooooo!

Maybe that’s the point of this thought: as you grow up, you come to realize something valuable, that the fears we harbored as children were often a misguided distrust of the unknown. As kids, we spooked ourselves with imaginary monsters. As adults, we became less afraid of the dark and, hopefully, more willing to embrace the foreign.

I could go on and on about how dentistry is way too expensive for the working class man, how insurance is too pricey and difficult to come by, and how for any appointment you make, you’ll spend most of that time just sitting by yourself in a reclined chair like a corpse waiting for an autopsy.

But this isn’t a rant about dentistry (they’re just doing their job, after all). This is an observation about our ever-changing understanding of the world. We’re scared of things because we avoid them, not because they’re scary. Be scared, yes, but be brave enough to eventually defeat that fear.

Oh, and brush your teeth.