balls

My four year old came down the stairs while I was making dinner. “Dad? What do you call the thing below my jingler.” “Jingler”, in our parlance, is penis.

“Well…” I said

“It looks like a bag!” he said.

“Well…” I said. “It’s sometimes called that, yes.”

“A bag?”

“Or a sack.” I offered.

“But what do you really call it – really?” he pleaded

“A scrotum,” I said.

“A scrotum?” He was not at all happy with that crappy word.

“Or your balls,” I said.

“What!?”

“Your balls,” I reiterated. “Like ball sack.”

“Mom!” he yelled, turning back up the stairs. “Dad said I can call it my balls!”

I know now that he asked his mom that same question and she said, as every mother does (who can), “Go ask your dad.”

Well… He’s got a word for it. And it’s a pretty common word. I think this was a win as a dad. I’m not sure though. Unless he brings it up in polite society as I would never do.

I don’t like tube socks.

Allow me to come out at this point against tube socks. I know it’s not a huge issue on anyone’s mind right now what with the slow economic recovery and that lady with flesh-eating disease, but tube socks just really piss me off. They don’t fit…anything, but some piece of wood shaped exactly like a tube sock. And that seam at the toes does whatever the fuck it wants! Might’s well just toss a piece of wire into your shoe and allow it to land where it may. And there being no heel means there’s never a heel. You can wear it a thousand times and work in a thousand heels, basically inflating the sock in every direction nine inches from the toe so you’ve got some tricked out cotton Japanese lantern, drunk on sake, making very little sense. Ever. Tube socks are bad.

On a related note, no human has walked this earth looking better with a Mohawk than they would bald. Truism, that.

Boggling Minds

Think about your mind. Think about the fact that you can think. Think about the fact you can think about thinking. Meta that. Imagine a green airplane with wings with rainbow feathers and a nose the shape of soft serve ice cream cone – chocolate brown, with a purple octagon shimmering at the tip. Think about your imagination.

You can read tiny characters in sequences and glean complex ideas and images from those tiny characters. You can look at a page of notes and translate that through your fingers into beautiful music. You can invent stories. You can imagine the future and remember the past. You can come up with brilliant, dangerous and hare-brained ideas. You can paint pictures and make movies. You can multiply and divide; add and subtract and maybe even do calculations that to many others would be beyond abstract. You can see, hear, feel, taste, smell.

The scent of baking can reach deep into your mind and pull memories of your grandmother forth for your review. A movement of a symphony can move you to joyful tears. Too much heat and your brain will yank your hand away, long before you conscious mind knows to. You can taste the difference between Chablis and chardonnay.

You can love a person with all of your heart. You can feel another human’s suffering. You can stand up for what you believe in. You can sit down and watch the sun set.

Your brain is unbelievably, unequivocally, undeniably amazing. Think about just how spectacular your consciousness is – your awareness! The breadth and depth and sheer enormity of it!

Now think about the fact that there are 7,000,000,000 (seven billion!) other equally spectacular minds humming along right now on this tiny planet.

Think about the power of that.

Online Shenanigan-sanity

I like to go online and weigh in with a nice dose of balanced, well-reasoned sanity in the comments section after news or opinion articles on, say, Sarah Palin, where the great mass of goombas hiding behind names like Bubba01 ejaculate angry misspelled sentences packed with vitriol. It’s like tossing a carrot into the mouth of the fat kid that’s already overflowing with French fries and Whopper juice. Confusion abounds. And no one ever comments on my comments. There’s the occasional thumbs-up by some poor soul looking for some sanity, but rarely ever thumbs-down I’m guessing because they probably never get past an opening  like “Actually, and while I disagree with the overall premise for reasons I will make clear below, the article is very well written and the support the author provides is relatively sound; however, in light of…” Snooze. I can just imagine them getting about 8 words into it, punching a mental “delete” button, and scanning down for words like “dumbfuck” and “dipshit”, then smiling gleefully when they come across them. The carrot, while nibbled, is left uneaten to rot.

All Hail the Essayist – Or Why News Skews and the Warlord [Name] Might Not be Such a Bad Guy

One thing I try to do (and often fail at) is get most of my information about important people, places, ideas and things from essayists; meaning, to me, writers who research more, take longer to consider, write in greater depth, and, generally, are less bent on convincing anyone of their particular opinion. That is not to say they are without opinion (and some great essays are very much drenched in opinion), but their opinions are, again, better researched, have more depth, and therefore generally more thoughtful. They also show an awareness and respect for opinions that don’t line up with theirs. I find that that sort of thoughtful approach generally leads to a better understanding of the depth and nuances of the subject about which they write.

Without even bothering to talk about the FOX News and MSNBC’s unashamedly biased silliness (a silliness that has it’s place, mind you, but it’s place is to entertain and not to inform), I think that, in general, news skews, and even when they are not trying to skew necessarily. It’s more a result of taking a tiny piece of a story – that which is news and so that which happened recently – and putting it out there all by itself. Even with the obligatory set-up and few paragraphs of background, the gist of the story then acts as a sort of soundbite that is ingested like a potato chip and often misconstrued as a balanced meal. Imagine a headline like “Warlord bombs tiny village – women and children among dead.” The first few paragraphs would be explanatory of exactly what happened – “Forces allied with the [Name], the [place] warlord, bombed a tiny village in [name], leaving [xx] people dead – among them [x] men and women, many of whom were elderly, and [x] children. The bombing took place during a battle the [other name] forces for…”

That is generally about as far as many of us will read, if in fact, we get beyond the headline at all. So we walk away with “Warlord is evil and [other name] forces are good.” Even if the reporting is accurate, and despite the fact that killing women and children (let alone any innocents) is certainly very, very wrong, and without my making up various scenarios where it might not be necessarily the wrongest wrong…coming to the conclusion that the  Warlord is evil might be quite far from the truth. But the news story did the best it could, and maybe buried down in the article, if it was long enough, we could find a bit more background to explain that.

Like the constant barrage of economic figures tossed our way – “the biggest drop in unemployment since 2008” – these sorts of news stories are but a tiny slice in time and provide absolutely no context. “But 2008 is only four years ago and our country is 235+ years old – our economy even older, how does the biggest drop in the last four mean anything whatsoever, beyond the fact that five years ago we had a bigger drop?” It’s like peeking through the blinds of a ballroom for three seconds and walking away thinking you have some idea of what took place that night at the ball.

To those who would argue, “I’m busy. I don’t have an hour to read an essay on that.” I would contend that if you skipped the news and saved that time up, you might find that you do have time enough to read the essay and gain a much better understanding of the subject. And you pick and choose. We are so inundated with news now that we sometimes feel like we need to know what’s going on everywhere. You can’t. So pick your battles. If you have strong opinions about something – focus there. If you’re of a serious political bent – know all sides of the argument inside and out. If you love American history or have family from from Eastern Europe and are concerned about what happens there – read essays on American History and/or Eastern Europe.

Obviously, I’m making this all sound rather easy and of course it’s not. A person needs to know where to find the essays, then get to know those who write on those subjects, then actually sit down and read them. And work went late, and the kids have homework and hockey, the lawn needs mowing, the in-laws are coming … so flipping on the television news, turning to your Google news (which is in a constant state of tailoring – deciding for you, thank you very much – the news stories you see) or glancing at the newspaper (if you are among the dwindling few who do), it seems is all we can pull off sometimes.

And yet, now, at a time when the complexity of our world seems to be expanding exponentially (or is that just a result of our internet-abled seeming awareness of absolutely everything?), our main source of information is the most simplistic imaginable – the 24-hour news station. The great dumbing down began in earnest in the last couple of decades and it’s taking hold. NBC News “In Depth”, I remember I timed some years back, was about four minutes long. In depth, indeed.

Focusing on essays rather than the general popular news outlets also allows you to miss out on all the news stories that we are bombarded with that really have no impact whatsoever on our lives – or most anyone else for that matter. “There’s Pink Slime in our Fast Food!” Wait a minute, fast food’s not healthy? “Snooki’s Pregnant!” Wait a minute, Snooki’s a girl?

And beyond that, grisly multiple murders are grisly and horrible, but if it happens a thousand miles away, beyond hearing about it, should I, or better yet, do I need to know more? Are the details relevant to me? Or are there better ways to spend my time than hearing about how “the gunman entered the building through a back door and went first up the stairs to the office of his former boss who was on the phone with his wife wearing a shirt with the company logo when the gunman opened fire and shot the 48-year-old father of two eleven times leaving behind a grisly scene of…”

There was a time when essayists were the bee’s knees for a larger share of the literate public, and the essay itself, considered one of the great forms of writing. And while among a small population, that may still be the case, essays have fallen out of favor for the general public. We modern folk like everything, information and learning included, to be quick, convenient and easy to chew – not unlike pink slime.

But there are always great essayists writing and we have oodles of them right now – and some of them decidedly hip! The late David Foster Wallace made much of his name with his book of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” – which was great fun! I’m currently reading “Pulphead” by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and have gleaned a more intelligent and thoughtful understanding of Christian Rock (of which all I used to be able to say was – ha ha – it’s an oxymoron), reality tv, Michael Jackson and Constantine Rafinesque (Who? Exactly.). My Atlantic and Harper’s magazines arrive monthly and keep me in good essays throughout the years (the latter skewing pretty liberal; the former a bit more centrist).

So it’s not all smarty-pants whatsoever. Essays can be great fun!

But I still do contend that if you want to understand something in some depth, you need to approach and study it in some depth, and essays provide that opportunity while being entertaining in the hands of those who know what they’re doing. And they’re not as long as non-fiction books!

So all hail the essayists. Let’s make them rich and famous rather than Snooki and the mass murders, and make ourselves as informed as we are opinionated.

My Addiction to Fiction

I’ve always been somewhat embarrassed to say that I really don’t watch much television at all; not because it matters, really, other than the fact that both my brother and sister-in-law are executive producers in that industry. I guess I’ve just never wanted to come off like some holier-than-thou pinhead, but I really do prefer reading. Pinhead Alert!

It’s a weird sort-of guilt, but can certainly be chalked up to my regular Midwestern guy upbringing that basically states, “You’re not fancy. Don’t be a sissy. Shut up about yourself and fit in, lest your head be chopped off.”  Or something like that.

But a new article in the New York Times entitled “Your Brain on Fiction” might just be the proof I needed to prove I’m not holier-than-thou or thee or anyone else. It states basically that recent neuroscience shows that reading fiction engages the brain much more actively than watching television. I’ve always known that but haven’t been able to explain it beyond that which I’ve said a million times: “Any time we are subject to both sound and vision at the same time through the same medium, the brain has nothing to do but sit passively and take it in.”

Reading, on the other hand, forces you to fill in the blanks – to take the descriptions and build the image in your head; it’s much more active, and therefore, engaging and interesting, at least to the likes of me. The article shows that the areas of the brain the, say, recognize movement, smell or texture fire up when reading words that effectively communicate actions, scents or tactile feelings. And, more interestingly, that does not happen with television.

So I am no sissy. I just need more stimulation. Nothing wrong with that, at least with entertainment. It makes me wonder, though, if avid readers of fiction are more apt to be addicts. I’ll leave it up to the neuroscientists to figure that out.

I love people, but

I think I’ve had an epiphany of sorts – or maybe I was just able to put into a simple, tidy little phrase something I’ve known all of my life, but haven’t quite understood so simply. That is, I love individuals, but I don’t care for groups of people. In fact, I really don’t like groups of people much at all. I may even hate them – mostly. This is why I’ve always said, and with some weird pride, “I’m not a joiner.” I would often then go on to enumerate that which I will not join: I don’t want to be a part of your religion, book club, biker gang, ultimate frisbee team and so on and so on. It is not that I don’t like those in and of themselves, but I do not want to be a part of them. But at the same time, I love the individuals who make them up. Well, not all of them of course, but would give them all the benefit of the doubt, not as the group, but as individuals, in the beginning.

I am definitely suspicious of groups. They are unnerving for a host of very good reasons: They are dangerous; they are often possessed by mob mentality (even in small groups); they are often self-righteous; they allow individuals to be lazy and force others to pick up their slack, they are physically large and can lose control of that physicality, and on and on. Think groupthink. That is not to say that I am some sort of whacked-out every man for himself libertarian, or rugged individualist (whatever that means) as I’m really not all that rugged and I do love those I love dearly – my family, my close friends and co-workers – and I love to be around them. I even understand the need for and desire to help one another as individuals and even as a society (big group, that one).

But still I chafe at the little trappings of groups; god save me if I have to dress like a group of people beyond whatever I would normally choose for myself; scheduled and regular meetings I am certain each knock a good 20 minutes (beyond the wasted time of the meeting itself) off the end of my life; I can feel my ultimate demise inching toward me each time I am forced into a group experience not of my choosing. Little bits of me die within.

And I wonder even at the logistics of it all! How on god’s green earth do people round up large groups for biking, or ultimate frisbee, or to re-enact some bygone battle with muskets and period outfits(!) for that matter? That is a great mystery to me, but then again I am imagining 45 me’s at the end of the phone line receiving the invite: “Hey, wanna come out and meet a bunch of us at…” Nope.

But let me say again, I’m not anti-people – just anti-bunches-of-people. I’m also averse to concerts, sporting events, bullfights – wherever great hoards of humanity pile into a confined space. One could be crushed! I love the idea of Woodstock, but would have blown my head off to have had to be there for more than 15 or so minutes – even clean and sober; add some acid or mushrooms or even whatever weed they were smoking back then to that experience and I might have simply physically honestly exploded into individual atoms rather suddenly, simply ceasing to exist entirely.

People who know me gave up long ago inviting me to join anything. And I don’t think they love me less for it. I think they, as individuals, accept that. As a group, they could turn up at my door in the middle of the night with pitchforks and torches and stakes and demands of my skills for ultimate frisbee every other Thursday down at Como Park – rain or shine! What a nightmare!