Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Emergency Room

A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in I have no idea how long, I decided to get on my stationary exercise bike. I won't go into all the reasons I hadn't been on it for so long, but if you've read some of the things I've written here, like this post, you can probably guess that they were illness-related.

But I've been feeling pretty good lately, so I thought I'd spend an easy half hour on the bike -- nothing intense, just some leisurely pedaling in front of a television. I was a little achy when I was through, but that didn't worry me. After not doing any kind of exercise for so long, I figured anyone would be a little achy and that I'd feel better in the morning.

I actually felt a little worse in the morning, but not so bad that I couldn't go to work. But just to be on the safe side, I brought my cane in case I needed it later.

I don't know what it was -- maybe all the long stretches of sitting -- but each time I stood up, I felt a little worse until I was in so much pain that I couldn't think, which is basically what I get paid to do. So I decided to go home, but I could barely walk either, and when I finally got to my car, I found that it was sort of hard to drive as well. I could move my foot back and forth between the gas pedal and the brake pedal, but since the brake pedal is just a tiny bit closer to the foot than the gas pedal, I had to lift my foot a little each time I needed to brake, and that was sort of painful.

If I were a wiser man, I probably would've had someone drive me home, but I managed to get home in one piece, and my car managed to get home in another piece, so between the two of us, we managed to get home in two pieces, which is exactly the way it should be.

But once I got home, I couldn't find a comfortable position. I couldn't stand, I couldn't sit, and I couldn't lie down without feeling intense pain. So I took some ibuprofen and I took a few Vicodin tablets that were left over from the last time I hurt my back, but they didn't do any good. For the record, I don't think Vicodin works on me at all. The last time I had some, I finished off most of the bottle and it didn't relieve the pain even the tiniest little bit. But you always used to hear about some celebrity or another who became addicted to Vicodin, which I could never understand until I decided that Vicodin probably only works on the rich and famous. That's my theory at least.

Anyway, I didn't look forward to the prospect of driving to the emergency room, especially since it entailed parking the car in a huge lot, from which the actual emergency room is a rather long walk. (To be fair, it's not that long a walk, but when you can barely take one step, any walk seems like a long walk.) But I needed medical attention that night, so I figured I'd better call an ambulance.

But I wasn't sure about how to do that. I knew I could call 911, but this wasn't an emergency, technically speaking -- it's not like my house was on fire or I was being attacked by rabid dogs. I figured I could get some paramedics to come over to the house, and maybe they could treat me right there with some pain killers, but I couldn't find "Paramedics" in the phone book.

So I called the local police department and asked them what to do. They told me I should call 911. "Even if it's not an emergency?" I asked and they said yes. So I called 911 and they asked me what was the nature of my emergency. I told them it wasn't really an emergency and then I explained the situation to them. They told me they'd notify the fire department, who would have an ambulance at my house in a few minutes.

A few minutes later I heard sirens blaring loudly in the night and a few seconds later the ambulance was at my house, along with a huge fire truck and some other very large vehicle. I guess it's standard procedure to send a fire truck, some other huge vehicle, and an ambulance -- all with sirens blaring -- when you report a non-emergency, but it was a little embarrassing for me, especially since I try to keep a low profile.

I'd left the door unlocked so they came into the house, picking me up and putting me on a gurney. It seemed like more and more people came into the house, even after I was on the gurney, and one of them was asking me all sorts of questions.

The only one I remember is, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how much pain are you feeling right now?" I told him 9, since even though I was in a lot of pain, there were times when I've been in a lot more pain.

The next thing I knew they were wheeling me out of the house and into the ambulance, and about 15 minutes later I was in the emergency room.

Now, here's something you may not know. I'd heard it before and accepted it as true, but had never had the chance to verify it. If you drive to the emergency room, no matter how sick you are, you have to sit in the waiting room and fill out forms while you wait for your name to be called. But if you arrive by ambulance, they wheel you right into the emergency room with no waiting whatsoever. Once inside, though, I did have to wait a few minutes, because all the beds were filled, but fortunately I'd found a somewhat comfortable position on the gurney.

While I was waiting, somebody asked me the same "On a scale of one to ten" question, word for word the way the last person asked it. But this time I had a difficult time answering it. I said, "Well, right now, I don't feel all that bad because I'm in a somewhat comfortable position, but when I called the ambulance it was about 9."

Anyway, it feels like I'm taking way too long telling this story, so I'll just cover the highlights: When I met the doctor, she decided to give me an IV cocktail of morphine, Valium, and Vicodin. (At least that's what I think was in it. I'm sure about the morphine, but I've pretty much forgotten what the other ingredients were. It doesn't really matter. The important part was the morphine.) The IV didn't seem to do much for me, though, because when they wheeled me into another room to get an x-ray, I had to slide off the gurney and onto the x-ray table, which was a semi-major ordeal. After they wheeled me back to my room and the doctor told me my x-ray didn't show anything abnormal, she asked me how I felt and I told her about the same. So she gave me another IV. That one seemed to do the trick. She let me rest for a while, but I knew I'd have to find a way home, so I called a friend of mine, told her I was in the emergency room, and asked her if she could give me a ride home. (I don't know why that idea didn't occur to me when I needed a ride to the emergency room -- possibly because I was in so much pain that I couldn't think.) After a while, the doctor decided to write me a couple of prescriptions and discharge me, but before she did, she asked if I wanted another IV. I told her I didn't think I needed one, but she decided to give me one anyway and I couldn't think of any reason to object. When I was discharged, my friend was already waiting for me. I was groggy but feeling no pain, so walking to her car was no problem.

When I got home, I looked at the prescriptions. There was one for Vicodin and one for Valium, but nothing for morphine.

The drugs wore off by the time I woke up the next day, so I could feel some pain again, but I've been improving day by day and I think I'll be back to normal soon. I've been walking with a cane, but that's mostly to warn people to steer clear of me -- I seem to rely on it less and less.

But last week, I had an appointment with a different doctor for a different condition, and she asked me about the cane. I told her "This is proof that exercise is bad for you" and she agreed. At the time, I thought she understood I was just being wry and sardonic, but over the last few days, it's occurred to me that maybe she thought I was being serious.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Alexander

A friend for Apajala, perhaps:

Alexander Not-Culvert II was the middle child and only son of Dorothea Not and Alexander Culvert I. Although his parents had always addressed him as Alexander, he was known to his friends and classmates variously as Alex, Lex, Xander, Axle, or sometimes simply Al.

He was raised in the northern provinces of Hordovan One and Two, where for generations his family had been engaged in the profitable venture of legume farming. Prominent among their crops were the ankle nut, the redstone nut, the northern wood-leaf nut, the tea nut, the finger nut, and the two-horned pea.

It was anticipated that Alexander would carry on the Culvert tradition, even though he had no particular interest in—nor any recognizable aptitude for—any aspect of legume farming. After completing his mandatory education, he moved to the village of Milton by the Lake and enrolled in college, choosing to dedicate his academic career to the study of pseudo-science and revisionist history.

Plagued by scandal throughout his undergraduate years, Alexander was encouraged by college administrators and counselors to withdraw from the university and forge a path better suited to his needs.

As a young man with no certificate or diploma, Alexander went from one job to another, trying his hand at various trades and occupations. He eventually discovered his gift for the culinary arts, and diligently pursued a level-three degree in High-Temperature Cookery, the studies and lab work for which he completed in record time.

He quickly found work as an outdoor barbecuist, and sometime later discovered he had a natural talent for performing emergency appendectomies, tracheotomies, and other minor life-saving procedures, making him invaluable and highly sought after during times of neighborhood calamity. He found the work rewarding, and continued it as a hobby throughout his cooking career, but as a man who relished his privacy, he was markedly unenthusiastic about the attention it sometimes brought him.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Summer House in my Backyard

Obsessive readers of this blog may remember that back in 2005, I had a new garage built in my front yard, because the old garage, which was in my backyard, was too difficult to get to. It had a long narrow driveway with a slight curve around the house, and it seemed like it would be impossible to back out of the garage without bumping into something. So I never even tried.

Six years later, I'm still very happy with the new garage. In all the time I've used it, I've never bumped into anything. But there is, of course, a problem.

Actually, let's not call it a problem. Let's call it a puzzle instead. The puzzle can be posed as a question, like, "Now that I have a garage in front of my house, what should I do with the garage in back of my house?" It's an easy question to ask, but it can be answered many different ways. For the past six years, I didn't answer it at all. I just continued to use the old garage as I've always used it: as a storage area and workshop. But in the back of my mind I always knew I would eventually turn it into living space.

It seems like most things in the back of my mind just end up dying there, but every now and then, one of them makes it to the front of my mind. And that's how I decided to finally turn the garage into living space. But as far as the answer to the puzzle goes, I still haven't settled on an answer.

I told you all that as sort of an introduction to the current state of the project and all the setbacks and delays I've experienced so far. That part of the story is longer and more interesting than the introduction, but to be honest, I've told it so many times that I don't feel like going over it all again. Suffice it to say that what started out to be a simple (and relatively inexpensive) project has just about quadrupled in price. So what started out as an inexpensive way to add 400 square feet of living space turned into a reasonably priced way to add 400 square feet of living space. But it didn't stop there because at this point, it seems like a sort of expensive way to add 400 feet of living space. I should also mention that the project was originally scheduled to take about five weeks to complete, but it's been a couple of months so far and there's no scheduled end in sight.

It's actually not a big deal, because I've done enough work on the house in the past to expect it to always cost more and take longer than I estimated. Even when I used to do a lot of the work myself, it ended up taking more time, and sometimes more money.

But the funny thing is that I have no need for more living space. Absolutely none. And it's not like I'm that desperate to spend a ton of money either. So sometimes I get a little embarrassed when people ask me how I'm going to use that space and I have to tell them I don't know. Sometimes it even seems pathetic. I can imagine some people getting really excited about a project like this and they can't wait until it's finished so they can start using it. That's not me at all.

For some reason, the architect decided to call it a game room, so that's what it says on the plans (as well as on the permits and the county tax records), but I have no plans of playing any games there. I was going to call it a study, but I'm not planning on studying anything there either, so for a while I decided to call it a studio. It would actually be a pretty great studio, and if I still had any artistic inclinations like I did in my 20s and 30s, it would be a great space to use. I might even be a tiny bit excited about using it.

But those were different times. Now I half-jokingly call it my summer house, and there are a couple of good reasons for that. One reason is that I think of a summer house as a metaphor for something expensive and unnecessary. The other reason is that it'll be better-insulated than the rest of the house since I had to bring it up to 2011 building codes, I bought an efficient air conditioner for it, and since it's only one room, it will get good ventilation. Besides, as far as I know (and admittedly, this isn't very far), there's no law saying your summer house can't be in your backyard, less than 10 feet away from your real house.

The only problem is there's no plumbing. I'm not saying there won't be some day, but at this point, plumbing isn't in the plans. The city has a lot restrictions determining what you can put into a detached structure, and I didn't want to have to deal with them about their plumbing rules. The other thing is, I figure it'll cost me another ton of money, bringing the cost of the project to two tons, and I can't afford that at the moment. (As a side note, I'm keeping the old slab floor -- even though it has a crack in it -- until I put in some plumbing. There's no point in pouring a new slab just to break it up later.)

But even if I could afford to add plumbing, two tons is a lot to spend on a structure I don't even need. Even one ton is pretty hard to justify, since it already feels like I'm flushing money down the toilet (figuratively speaking, of course, since there will be no actual toilet unless and until I decide to put in some plumbing).

Oh by the way, please don't tell me I could put in some plumbing, then rent the place and offset the construction costs with the rental income. It's a great idea, but I've already thought of it. I'm not saying I've considered the idea and rejected it -- I'm just saying don't suggest it to me. If you do, you'll be forcing me to post another blog entry listing all the pros and cons. And that's not something I want to do.

So that's it. I'm spending a lot of money to build something I don't really need. The only way I can justify it is by arguing that even though I don't need it, the house needs it. If that doesn't make any sense to you, it's probably because you never wanted to be an architect when you were a kid, and even though you thought that dream died a long time ago, traces of it still force you to pick up a pencil every now and then so you can sketch out an idea for a floor plan or roof line or something like that.

And if you're wondering why I'm only "half-jokingly" calling it a summer house, there are a few reasons for that, but the most important one is probably that it's not funny enough to be a full joke.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Glitch in the Grid

Glitch in the Grid is the latest film from Eric Leiser. Like its predecessor Imagination, it combines live action and stop-frame animation to create a what Leiser calls a "personal, magical realist film."

The magical realism isn't as strong in Glitch in the Grid as it was in Imagination -- as a matter of fact, despite the director's assertion, the overall tone of Glitch in the Grid is more "home movie realism" with scattered bits of Christian symbolism.

Leiser describes his film as being "between documentary and fiction." I don't know how fictitious the fictional parts are, or even which parts are fictional, but since Eric, Jeff, and Jay -- the three main characters in the film -- are played by Eric Leiser, his brother and composer/sound editor/sound mixer Jeffrey Leiser, and their cousin Jay Masonek, the film does have a documentary feel. Unfortunately, as I already hinted at, the film sometimes crosses the border between documentary and home movie. And if you're not sure where that border is, when things start to seem a little bit too self-indulgent, it probably means you're in home movie territory.

However, I liked the idea of Eric, Jeff, and Jay acting as (possibly fictionalized versions of) themselves, since it gave a sense of honesty and truth to the film. It didn't feel like anyone was acting. (In my opinion, the biggest flaw of Imagination was that a lot of the acting was amateurish to the point of being distracting. That is not a problem with Glitch in the Grid.)

From a cinematic standpoint, Glitch in the Grid is a well-made film. The animation was creative and inventive and a pleasure to watch, the music was engaging and well-suited to the film, and the cinematography seemed fluid and effortless, making the overall experience of watching Glitch in the Grid a positive one.

But watching a film is one thing, understanding it is another.

Before I continue with my review, I'm going to cheat a little and quote in its entirety the synopsis included in the press materials:

    Jay Masonek is feeling down and out. Although he is a talented artist, Jay has seldom left his small town in Northern California. One day, Jay's cousins Jeff and Eric (who are also artists) visit from LA. They offer Jay the opportunity to come live with them for a period of time in Hollywood. Hoping to cheer him up, the brothers show Jay the city and take him to film castings, even though it's during the economic recession and jobs are scarce. Jay soon begins to feel the oppression of what he describes as "the grid", heightening his spiritual crises. In his desperation, Jay reaches out to God, who in the form of a dove directs and leads him toward hope and renewal. Eventually, Jay returns to his small town, where he find a “green job” in the California redwood forest. Meanwhile, Eric and Jeff pursue relationships in New York and England. At Eric’s wedding, the three come together again. Although he still feels alone, Jay, through a powerful moment, makes the biggest decision of his life.


Now that we know what the film is about, the question is, how successful is Leiser in conveying it to the viewer?

I don't believe it was a great success. The narrative is much less enigmatic than in Imagination, but unless you know in advance what the movie was about, or unless your mind works in the same way as Leiser's -- it's a challenge trying to extract all the meaning that Leiser imbued it with. I don't like things spelled out for me, but for a movie that strives to deliver a message, a little bit of spelling would have been helpful.

The main story arc centers on Jay, who as a young adult has yet to find himself. He spends a lot of time skateboarding and making more sophisticated versions of the sort of drawings high school kids doodle in their notebooks when the class gets too boring. He wants to be an artist but it's tough finding work and Jay doesn't really seem willing to leave his childhood behind.

A lot of the movie consists of Jay talking about his life, and in his discussions with Eric and Jeff, we find that no one really has anything insightful to say. That's not to imply they don't have anything important to say -- it's just that everything said or implied in their conversations has already been said by millions of other people as they realize they've entered adulthood without any real understanding yet of what it means to be an adult.

I suppose my biggest problem with the film is that it requires too much interpretation. Maybe this was deliberate and maybe it wasn't, but as a result I got the feeling that there was a message buried in there somewhere but I didn't know how to dig it out.

For example, to cite a part of the film that's briefly mentioned in the synopsis, at one point we see Jay in a redwood forest as part of a group learning how to make trails and uproot iceplant and other invasive species, learning about the native wildlife, and in general learning about the ecology of the forest. He seems content with this work, but I don't know why this scene is in the film. It's not a bad scene -- I just can't figure out its relevance to the story arc.

My guess (and it really is just a guess) is that it's supposed to signify that Jay is happy now that he's found something meaningful to do, something that gives his life purpose, something that grounds him. But if that's the message, it was all but lost on me. All I saw was someone drifting through life who came to land upon a job working with the Ecology Youth Corps. There's no indication that this is anything more than a temporary job for Jay, that it's more than something to just keep him occupied for a while. He doesn't seem excited or even particularly interested in it, and if he had drifted to another job a day or two later, it wouldn't have surprised me. At the scene's end, we do see him looking up toward the sky, and we soon see the animated dove flying through the forest, so the symbolism isn't lost on us. But if his job has any meaning or importance to Jay, it's not at all clear what that meaning is.

For that matter, nothing about Jay's character is particularly revealing. I saw nothing that looked even remotely like despair or suffering through a spiritual crisis in Jay's behavior, and the only sense I had that he felt oppressed in any way came from the fact that he couldn't find work as an artist. But even if he had come right out and said, "I'm suffering from a profound sense of oppression and despair, and I'm having a spiritual crisis that's made me so confused that I don't even know who I am anymore," I probably wouldn't have believed him, because there's never any expression in his voice. The words sometimes come out, but his feelings and emotions always remain inside him.

To be fair, Jay does tell us that he's not the type of person who vocalizes a lot of the thoughts he has, that he does a lot of quiet soul-searching and has always had an off-and-on struggle to reconcile what the material world offers with what his spiritual purpose is on earth is. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with that -- the only problem is that people who think a lot but don't often express themselves don't always make the best movie characters or documentary subjects.

Some of the other scenes didn't add much to the movie either -- it just seemed like Leiser thought they'd be interesting for the audience to watch. For example, there's a scene of Jay and a friend painting colorful images on a car, and making small talk that eventually leads into Jay improvising a song. They eventually drive off in the car, but the scene goes nowhere. In most films I would call a scene like this "filler" -- in a documentary I would call it self-indulgence.

Ultimately, the film is not mysterious enough to be enigmatic and it's not obvious enough to be straightforward. If it were more enigmatic, it might have been more engaging to the viewer (like Imagination was), and if it were more straightforward, it might have been less frustrating to watch. Instead, it relies on the viewer to interpret things the way the writer intended, which is not always easy. A good example is in one of the final scenes: Does it show Jay reconnecting with his family and finding the comfort and strength that a family can bring, or is he merely helping someone walk downstairs? I'd like to believe it's the former, but there was nothing other than my imagination to suggest this, and since the scene looked so much like home movie footage, I didn't feel compelled to look for any deeper meanings.

Glitch in the Grid is a very personal movie, and personal movies can sometimes be emotionally powerful, but like the pages of a journal, they can sometimes be a lot more interesting to the writer than to anyone else.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Body Modification and Predictions about the Future

A few years ago, I was talking to some guy and somehow we got on the subject of the younger generation. It didn't take me too long to realize his attitude was a lot different from mine. His attitude was pretty much "Kids today don't know anything" while my attitude was more like "These kids will kill you and eat you."

When we got to the subject of tattoos and body piercings, he recited the familiar trope that when these kids go out into the real world, the only jobs they'll be able to get are the ones where they ask, "Do you want fries with that?" First of all, I didn't think that was a very clever remark the first time I heard it, and by the time this guy said it, I thought it was even less clever. So I couldn't give him any points for originality. But secondly, I didn't even agree with him.

I told him that as more people get tattooed and pierced, it will become more socially acceptable, and more people will do it at an earlier age. So by the time they enter the job market, such body modifications won't seem the least bit strange or off-putting. If you're a college graduate with tattoos up and down your arms, and the guy in his mid-thirties who's interviewing you happens to have a few tattoos as well, it might even work in your favor. As a matter of fact, you might have the advantage over another applicant who doesn't have any tattoos.

Does that sound far-fetched? I don't know. It seems possible to me. I'm not very good at predicting the future, though, so the best I can do is hope that my lack of tattoos and piercings will never put me at a disadvantage.

Okay, here's another idea related to body modification. I remember when women who got plastic surgery generally didn't want to admit it. I guess the idea was they wanted people to think they looked that way naturally, and didn't need a surgeon to make them look good. For that matter, women used to be equally coy about whether or not they died their hair.

But look how things have changed since then. Not only do women not hide their surgical attempts at looking good -- some of them actually brag about them. They talk about what procedures they've had, and what procedures they're thinking about getting. And men are slowly becoming just as bad.

So here's the idea. As more and more people have plastic surgery, it will eventually become the norm, so the people who haven't had plastic surgery will be regarded as oddities or freaks. That's bad, but what's even worse is that those of us who are naturally good-looking will have a difficult time convincing others that we never resorted to surgical means. I dread being told, "You couldn't possibly look this good on your own! You must have had something done!" My only hope is that in the future, I won't be as handsome as I am today.

Okay, I may have been stretching things a little, perhaps especially in regard to my own physical appearance, but my prediction is still very plausible. As a matter of fact, I think I've actually understated what things will really be like, because I didn't mention how popular liposuction, bariatric surgery, and other means to turn fat people into lean ones will become. As these procedures improve, or are supplanted with safer and more effective procedures, they'll become commonplace, and perhaps even de rigueur.

My final thought today doesn't have anything to do with body modification, but because it's a prediction about the future, I'll include it here for your consideration.

You've probably heard that in Shakespeare's time, there was no standardized spelling. Most people were illiterate so they didn't even write things, but those who did (William Shakespeare, for example) just spelled things in a way that made the most sense to them. The commonly-held belief is that standardized spelling was a result of the printing press, because it centralized the publication of news and literature. As a side note, television and movies are credited with having a similar effect. Although television networks may have started in New York city, as the medium became increasingly popular a lot of broadcasting was done in Los Angeles. This, combined with the fact that all the movie studios were in Los Angeles, is responsible for the West coast accent becoming so predominant and why all the people in the United States who use a different accent sound like they talk funny.

But let's get back to the printing press. Or, more specifically, the centralization of publishing. Or, more accurately, the decentralization of publishing. It's been going on for a while, but publishing at the present time is very decentralized. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can create a web site and publish whatever he wants to his heart's content. And I'm all for that because, let's face it, who doesn't want to read a bunch of nonsense endlessly spewed out by halfwit morons?

But I'm not going to focus on the content of such web sites -- I'm going to focus on the spelling, because I believe that just as the centralization of publishing led us to a standardization of spelling, the decentralization is leading us away from such a standard. This isn't just a theory, by the way. I've seen some of the same words misspelled on different web sites and I believe some of these will eventually be accepted as acceptable spellings. This isn't really anything new, since language changes all the time, and it usually changes when a lot of people make the same mistakes over and over until the mistakes are no longer considered mistakes. Consider the words yogurt and donut, for example. But in the past, the new way of spelling something eventually replaced the old way, whereas today, the old way and new way will probably coexist, as long as the people who know how to spell have as many web sites as the people who don't.

Okay, that's all I have to say on this matter. As a matter of fact, it's more than I have to say on the matter. All I really had was that one sentence about how decentralized publishing will lead us away from standardized spelling. I should have quit there, because after that it started to get sort of boring. So there it is. Unfortunately, I don't have a clever remark to end with, so I'll just wrap things up by warning you not to be too surprised if in the future, everyone has plastic surgery and tattoos and nobody knows how to spell.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I Had a Dream

I had an interesting dream the other night. I probably have interesting dreams every night, but I don't always remember them when I wake up. Sometimes I think that the more interesting the dream is, the more likely I am to remember it the next morning. It's an appealing and reasonable explanation, but it may not be the right one, especially considering that the dream I had the other night wasn't actually that interesting after all.

I dreamed I was staying in a house that wasn't my own, and it was located in a place I'd never been to before. There were a lot of other people in the house, and they were all visitors there as well. I remember that the room I was staying in -- and for that matter, the entire house -- was decorated in a style that I would have never chosen myself.

I didn't really know most of the other people in the house. I knew one woman, but she wasn't in the house. She may not have even been in the dream. But she had a pet mouse that for some reason liked to stay in my room.

Like all mice, it was very cute. It was also very tiny and it squeaked a lot. At some point, and for some reason -- possibly to muffle its squeaks, or possibly to keep it safe from being accidentally stepped on -- I placed the mouse inside the mouth of a flexible plastic toy animal and zipped the mouth shut.

I took the plastic animal downstairs with me, and whenever people heard it squeak, they'd come over to me and ask what was inside. So I'd unzip the mouth a little and they'd see the mouse inside and say, "What a tiny little mouse! It's so cute!"

I went from one room to another, trying to ignore the interior d├ęcor, and encountering different people in each room. Some people I didn't know at all, and some people I knew only vaguely, but they all had the same reaction to the mouse: "What a tiny little mouse! It's so cute!

The mouse was cute. There's no denying that. It was mostly white with some more-or-less symmetrical white-brown patches on its sides. It had a cute little face too, much more expressive than the faces on the mice you see in real life. And, of course, the fact that it was so tiny made it even cuter.

I remember showing the mouse to some guy I may have been related to, and then walking into another room and showing it to someone else. "It's so tiny!" she told me. "I know," I said. "Isn't it cute?"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Intelligent Design

I was all set to write about Intelligent Design today, but before sitting down to start typing, I decided to eat a mango. I really like mangoes. As a matter of fact, I like a lot of tropical fruits, such as papayas and coconuts. I also like the look of tropical plants, and if I had an aquarium, I'd probably fill it with tropical fish. I don't think I'd like the weather, though -- I've never been too big on oppressive humidity and hurricanes.

But as much as I like mangoes, I don't eat them very often, because I've never been able to figure out how. They've got a peel on the outside and a big flat seed in the middle, so if you try cutting them in half with a sharp knife, all you'll end up with is a mango with a cut all around the perimeter.

At that point, I'll usually try something like twisting one half of the mango off the seed. It never works, but it's the only thing I know how to do. What happens is that some most of the mango will stick to the seed and the rest will stick to the peel. The only thing to do next is to scrape the mango from the peel with your teeth, and then gnaw the rest of the mango from the seed. Then when you're done with that, you do the same thing for the other half.

It's kind of a messy job, but it's worth the effort because mangoes are so good. I can't help thinking I'm eating like some wild animal, though, like maybe a raccoon or something. And that's why I believe there's no good way for a human to eat a mango.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk a little about Intelligent Design. It gets attacked for all sorts of reasons, such as being a religious belief pretending to be science, but that's not why I don't believe in it. And it's not because I'm an atheist or anything like that. My reason is much more fundamental.

About a year ago, I was seeing a physical therapist about my bad back. He always told me that my hamstring muscles were too short, which was contributing to my lower back problems for some reason. I don't remember the reason exactly -- all I remember is that it makes me take shorter steps than I should, which is somehow bad for my back. But here's the thing: I'm a little taller than average -- about 6'0" or 6'1", depending on my mood -- and my therapist was telling me that taller people have a tendency to have disproportionately short hamstrings. That didn't make any sense to me so I told him, "So much for Intelligent Design."

And that little story pretty much illustrates why I don't believe in Intelligent Design: We're not designed very intelligently.

Oh, we're pretty cool, there's no doubt about that. I like how if I get cut and start to bleed, the blood will coagulate and the flesh will heal, usually without even leaving a scar. It's not as cool as automatically growing a new arm if our old one breaks off, the way a lizard can do with its tail, but at least we've got bones that, if broken, will eventually fuse back together.

We're also designed sort of efficiently in some ways. A lot of our organs have two purposes. I can think of the ears, the mouth, the genitals, and the nose, right off the top of my head. There are probably others. Having an organ for one specific purpose seems sort of ad hoc, so having multiple functions is pretty clever. And the mouth actually has at least three -- it can be used for eating, talking, and even breathing when the nose is unavailable. And I'm not even mentioning all the lesser functions, such as kissing and glass-blowing.

But these multi-function organs can be a curse as well as a blessing. For example, you can't talk while you're eating without sounding incomprehensible or having food fall out of your mouth. If we had two dedicated organs, this wouldn't be a problem. If you were really hungry and also had a lot to say, you could satisfy both of those needs simultaneously. But with only one organ responsible for eating and talking, you're out of luck.

And that's not even the worst of it. Another reason I don't think we're very intelligently designed is that sometimes we get injuries that can't be healed, such as, in my case, a bad back caused by a few herniated discs in the lumbar region of my spine. There are other incurable conditions as well, and if you've read this blog before, you know that I have a couple of them. I just don't see what's so intelligent about susceptibility to fatal diseases.

But even if humans never got sick and were physically invulnerable to severe permanently life-altering accidents, I still wouldn't think we were all that well thought out, at least not compared to some of the other creatures on the planet. We can't breathe underwater like fish, and we can't fly like birds. We can't hear as well as dogs and cats, and we can't track other animals by scent. Childbirth for women can be difficult and painful, whereas for most other living things, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. We can't change our color like chameleons and some types of octopuses, and we can't jump from tree to tree like a bush baby. For that matter, we can't even eat a mango without a sharp knife, and even then the results aren't very pretty.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Super Bowl

Well, last Sunday was the Super Bowl and on that Sunday and every Sunday before it, I somehow managed not to watch the Super Bowl. It's not that I'm against football or professional sports or anything like that; I'm just not that into sports -- either playing them or watching them being played.

But having said that, I'll say this as well: Based on previous experiences, I know that if If I did watch the Super Bowl, I'd probably enjoy it. That's because I'm just as susceptible to mob mentality behavior as anyone else. We all are. It goes back to our caveman days, or maybe even before that.

But even though I don't think I've ever watched a Super Bowl, I used to love Super Bowl Sundays. Back when I used to be a semi-avid bicyclist, I realized it was the greatest day in the entire year for a bike ride. That's because nobody was in their cars and the streets were practically empty -- everyone was sitting at home on their fat lazy asses guzzling cheap beer and shoveling mounds of junk food into their gaping maws.

Okay, that's such an exaggeration that it's almost not worth counting all the ways I deliberately maligned everyone who watches the Super Bowl. Obviously, I did it for humorous effect and not to denigrate all the people who watch the Super Bowl. But I'll count all the ways anyway.

To begin with, I know for a fact that they don't all have fat lazy asses. And for that matter, even though an ass can be fat -- and many of them are -- an ass can not be lazy. It's a small matter though, since we recognize that the term "lazy ass" is an example of synecdoche, and we therefore understand the sentence "Get your lazy ass out of bed!" for example, to mean get out of bed.

Secondly, "guzzling" may be an overstatement in many cases. Also, I have no way of determining the quality of the beer -- or for that matter, any other beverage -- that people drink while watching the Super Bowl.

Next, to my knowledge, nobody actually shovels mounds of food into their mouths, be it junk food or any other variety. As far as I know, no one has ever made a shovel small enough to fit into the human mouth. The closest thing to it would be a large spoon, I suppose, or possibly a ladle.

And finally, the term "gaping maw" is just plain insulting.

But ignoring the hyperbole for a moment, it is true that people tend to eat a lot while watching athletic events. This, by the way, is not behavior that we can trace back to our pre-caveman days. I don't mean the pre-cavemen never watched athletic events -- I'm sure they did, since this is probably part of our genetic make-up. What I'm I'm talking about is cramming huge quantities of food down our throats and into our bellies while otherwise sitting around idly. I think this sort of idle behavior might not have even existed in our early history -- I'm not even sure laziness can exist in a society where there is constant struggle for survival.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about today, so let's start all over, from the very beginning. I didn't watch the Super Bowl game last Sunday.

When I got to work on Monday, some people were talking about the game, and one woman who said she doesn't care much for football said, "I even thought the commercials were a disappointment." And then on Tuesday, I was having lunch with a few of my co-workers and one of them asked me if I watched the game. When I told him I didn't, he asked, "Not even the commercials?"

And this brings us to what I wanted to talk about today. Unfortunately, it's not very interesting so I'll try to keep it short.

Anyway, I told the guy what I'm about to tell you. No, I didn't even watch the commercials. To watch TV in order to see the commercials goes against human nature. We're not supposed to like commercials, we're supposed to be annoyed by them. Commercials are just a way for businesses to convince us that we can't be happy until we buy something they sell, even though it's usually something we neither need nor want. The goal of a commercial is to try to make us feel bad about ourselves and then tell us that the only way we'll feel better is by buying whatever product or service the commercial is advertising. It's that simple. So why would anyone want to watch something like that?

We can't fault the advertisers, of course -- they're simply doing what they're supposed to be doing. But our natural inclination should be to resist this sort of psychological abuse -- we're not supposed to be voluntary participants in our own brainwashing.

So not only should we find commercials disappointing, we should find them manipulative and annoying and insulting. And for the most part, we do. Normally, when a commercial comes on, don't people mute it, see what's on another channel, or use the time to prepare a snack or make a quick trip to the bathroom?

I remember reading a book in high school. It was written by a guy named Vance Packard and was called The Hidden Persuaders. All I really remember from it is his assertion that commercials are deliberately written to be stupid in order to make us feel smart, so we'll let down our defenses and not resist the messages that the commercials are delivering. I don't know if that's actually true, but it would explain why most commercials are so idiotic.

So, we know commercials are bad for us, and yet we watch them anyway. And for the Super Bowl, apparently some people actually look forward to them. I don't understand it, but it doesn't really surprise me either -- especially when I see people walking around with the logos for their favorite products on their T-shirts and bumper stickers. Those people are not just passively absorbing some commercial message -- they're actually paying to advertise some corporation's product. It's bizarre. It shows how much the world is out of balance.

So no, I didn't watch the Super Bowl or any of the half-time commercials last Sunday. I saw a couple of commercials on YouTube on Monday, and one of them was supposedly the most expensive Super Bowl commercial ever made. It seemed kind of long and boring to me, though, so I thought it was a huge waste of money. And it didn't want to make me rush out and buy some ugly new car either

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Curiosity and Hope

They say curiosity killed the cat, but I don't think cats are actually all that curious.

I don't claim to have any particular insight into the cat mind, but if a cat is walking down the sidewalk and happens to notice an old mattress lying in the middle of an empty lot, I don't think it's going to ask itself a lot of questions like, "What's that mattress doing in that empty lot?" or "Did someone put that mattress there deliberately, and if so, why? Was it simply to dispose of an old mattress, or was there some other reason the mattress was brought here? Is there something about mattresses and empty lots that I don't understand? Is there a special purpose for either that I'm unaware of? And why is the mattress in the middle of the lot? Why wasn't it just left near the edge of the lot, which would have required a lot less effort than dragging it across the ground until it was at the approximate center? On the other hand, if bringing the mattress to this lot was not a deliberate act, then how exactly did it get there?"

I don't think the cat would ask those questions or any others. I think it would just trot over to the mattress, lie down on it, and stay there until it felt like doing something else. I don't think cats are deep thinkers. And I don't think they're particularly curious. As an old college friend once said to me, "They have brains the size of walnuts."

These aren't anti-cat remarks, by the way. I like cats just much as the next guy (unless the next guy is one of those animal hoarders they have a show about on TV). But more to the point, cats aren't unique in this regard. The same can be said of dogs, snakes, rabbits, or, for that matter, humans.

Okay, I will grant that a lot of humans are more curious than the average dog, or even more curious than the most gifted of dogs, but if you compared an average human to an average dog, I'm not sure which way the scale would tip.

However, that isn't even my point, because no matter how curious human beings are, at some point in their early lives, they don't really question a lot of things. They don't ask questions like, "Why are most rooms rectangular?" for example -- they just see that most rooms are rectangular and then use that observation in the formulation of their world view. In other words, they accept things as they are and learn to live with them, in exactly the same way that a cat would.

Here's an example from my own childhood. I went to two elementary schools when I was a kid, and architecturally they had a lot in common. I won't go into all the details, because they're totally irrelevant, but I will mention that both schools had a chain link fence that went all around the perimeter. There was a main entrance, and probably a secondary entrance, but in the first school I went to, there was also an auxiliary gate at one corner. That corner was farthest from all the buildings, and it was usually locked. I don't even know why the gate was put there, except maybe as some sort of emergency evacuation exit. But I do remember it being open a few times, and one of the things I remember is that on the concrete pad between the sidewalk and the gate, someone had carved the word HOPE in big block letters.

It's one of those things I noticed every time the gate was open, but I never thought much about it. It was just like a mattress in an empty lot to me: I saw it but I never wondered why it was there or who put it there or if it had any meaning. To me, it was just the word "HOPE" etched into concrete. I knew that someone must have written it with a stick or something sharp when the concrete was still wet, but beyond that, I never gave it any thought. I assumed it was nothing more than defacement of public property, although somewhere in the deep recesses of my unconsciousness, it probably seemed to me that "hope" was a fitting message for young elementary school students.

I never wondered anything more about it, and it never even occurred to me to talk to any of my friends about it. I probably would have eventually forgotten about it completely, except that one day, I was near the gate with a few other kids and some guy told us how it got there.

It turns out that "hope" in this case had nothing to do with optimism about a better future or anything like that. Hope was simply a girl who carved her name in the concrete a few years earlier. She used to go our school, and she had the reputation of being a bad student and a troublemaker. She might have even gotten expelled -- I don't remember.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

An Uncommon Man

The year is almost over, and I can't think of a better time to post my last blog entry of the year. My last post was about six months ago, and since I can't think of a better topic than the one I was writing about back then, I'll just continue with that topic today.

A while ago, I wrote on my Facebook profile that I had just been diagnosed with two more medical conditions, bringing the total up to four. I mentioned that they began with the letters A, B, C, and D, but I didn't I didn't spell out exactly what they were, so I'll do that now.

A. I keep forgetting about this one, so if I'm not thinking I'll sometimes say it's amnesia, but it's actually anemia, which I was diagnosed with in late June. My count was about half of what it's supposed to be, which meant I was pale and tired all the time. I thought I was pale because I'm a white guy who spends too much time indoors, and I thought I was tired all the time because I was waking up early to go to my physical therapy appointments for my bad back. But I ended up getting a blood transfusion, and my color and energy level eventually got back to normal.

B. This is an old condition, something I've had for about 20 years. I've got a few herniated discs in my lower back, and most of the time they don't bother me, but when they do it's sometimes so debilitating that I can't walk, or sit, or lie down, or do anything else. I don't know if there's a medical term for this condition, so I just call it a bad back.

C. This one's easy. When you think of a medical condition that begins with the letter C, what do you think of? Cystinosis? Conjunctivitis? Chondroblastoma? Chicken Pox? Maybe you do, but chances are you think of cancer instead. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005, and if you know a little about pancreatic cancer, you know that it can be extremely aggressive, but if you know a little more about pancreatic cancer you know that there are two kinds: the aggressive adenocarcinoma (which Patrick Swayze died of not too long ago), and the much less common, much less aggressive islet cell tumor (which Steve Jobs has). As I mentioned once before, I happen to have the less aggressive type, but that's pretty much all Steve Jobs and I have in common, as far as I can tell, other than the fact that we're both male humans of roughly the same age. For example, I'm not a billionaire, I don't wear black t-shirts, I'm not an egotistical despot, and I don't own any Apple products. Of course, there's always a chance that we could have a lot more in common than either of us knows about. For example, we might have the same blood type, or maybe we both enjoy solving crossword puzzles. But getting back to the topic at hand, one of the anti-cancer drugs I was taking has a side-effect of anemia. For various reasons, I'm not taking that drug anymore, and I no longer have anemia. Maybe that's just a coincidence.

D. On the day I found out I had anemia, I also learned that I have diabetes -- type 1 diabetes, to be specific. I don't know if you know this, but you get type 1 diabetes when your pancreas is no longer able to produce insulin, and my poor little cancer-stricken pancreas can no longer cut the mustard in that regard. So I'm pretty sure I got diabetes as a result of having pancreatic cancer. Anyway, it turns out that all that weight I lost was due to my untreated diabetes.

The interesting thing (to me, at least) is that type 1 diabetes is much less common than type 2, just as islet cell tumors are much less common than adenocarcinomas. For what it's worth, I also have a very rare blood type. This is all medically insignificant, of course -- I'm only mentioning it to illustrate that where cancer, diabetes, and blood type are concerned, I am anything but common.

Okay, that's enough of that because, believe it or not, I don't really like talking about my medical health. It sort of feels like I'm violating my own privacy. But here's the thing about cancer and other incurable diseases: People are always saying stupid things like "live life to the fullest" and "live each day as if it were your last." Fortunately, nobody's ever said those things to me, but they're still pretty common sentiments. If you don't believe me, look them up on Google. I did, and here's what I got:

"Live life to the fullest." 2.6 million hits
"Live each day as if it were your last." 62.4 thousand hits
"Live each day to the fullest." 1.79 million hits

I didn't check any of the other linguistic variations on this particular theme, except for this one:
"Living life to the fullest." 306 thousand hits

So it's a popular notion, as well as a romantic one, but the reason I think it's stupid is that, unless I completely misunderstand it, it's just a meaningless platitude. I don't think you should live each day as though it were your last, unless you inhabit some weird sort of artificial reality such as the ones depicted in bad movies. If I thought each day was my last, I'd never do my laundry or clean my house or shop for groceries. And I certainly wouldn't pay any bills. I probably wouldn't even write this blog, and then what condition would the world be in?

But as I said, maybe I don't really understand this idea of living life to the fullest. Maybe you have a different understanding. If you do, you should leave a comment for this post. And if you agree with me, maybe you should also leave a comment, just to let me know I'm not alone. And if you don't have an opinion, or you have an opinion but you're not sure what it is, you should probably still consider leaving me a comment.

I invite all comments, but I know I'm just wasting my breath, because I realize that very few people actually read this blog, and those that do aren't generally inclined toward commenting on my brilliant posts. But today I generously extend the offer anyway, in the spirit of the holiday season.

But to continue with the theme of this post, instead of living life to the fullest, I think you should just take care of the things that need taking care of, and the rest of the time just enjoy yourself. If you're lucky, you'll enjoy taking care of all the things that need taking care of. If not, that's okay too.

Enjoyment is sort of a nebulous concept, of course. We all know what it means, but in practical terms, it means different things to different people, since we don't all enjoy doing the same things. So just decide what it means to you, and then do it.

But you don't have to enjoy yourself to the fullest, just do whatever you want. For example, sometimes I like to do crossword puzzles, sometimes I like to stay up late watching bad movies on cable, and sometimes I like to read the idiotic comments that people post to articles they've read online.

But while we're still on the subject of meaningless expressions, another one I don't really like is "Happy New Year." It's okay as long as you say it to someone during the first week or so of the new year, but it doesn't make sense when you say it during the last few weeks of the old year, which is when you hear it a lot.

You could argue that it's short for "Have a happy new year," but that doesn't make a lot of sense either, since the new year is only new for about a week. So when you say "Have a happy new year," you're telling someone to enjoy the upcoming year, but only while it's still new, which, as I said before, is only for about a week.

So what you should say at the end of every year is, "Have a happy next year," which this year is good all throughout 2011. Or better yet, you should tell people what I'm about to tell you: Have a happy next year, but don't bother trying to live it to the fullest because it won't make you any happier. Just do what needs to be done, and the rest of the time enjoy yourselves.