Monday, August 29, 2005

Truth, and Opinion.

Let me opine, for a moment, on the folly of opinion, with a single caveat, the one the doctor gives you before injecting a needle into your skin: depending on how deep the insanity of your delusions runs, this may sting a bit.

Imagine any opinion that you have; the more strongly held it is the better. Okay? Now imagine that you meet a person who is brilliant—really, truly, absolutely brilliant, a person that knows twenty times what you know about the subject of your opinion. Unless you are a Nobel Prize winner, do not kid yourself: that person exists. That person inquires after your beliefs, patiently allowing you to present and develop your points, taking notes and asking thoughtful questions all the while. Now imagine that when he or she is finished listening, that individual, calmly and without anger, effortlessly tears every one of your arguments to shreds. He or she demolishes your rebuttals without any voice-raising or wild gesticulation, calmly as a computer demonstrating to you that everything you believed was wrong.

You’d be grateful, right? You’d thank that person sincerely, shake hands and be happy that the veil of ignorance had been lifted from your eyes, go forth with the recognition that you no longer have to live in illusion and misguidance. Wouldn’t you?

Bullshit. Chances are, if you are like everyone else, you would be deeply, deeply angry about this. You would be hurt and confused and threatened, awash with despair and embarrassment because someone hurt your feelings by telling you the truth. You would despise that individual, plugging your ears while screaming “La, la, la, I can’t hear you!!”

That’s how attached the crazy monkeys of humanity become to their ideas. We would rather feel good and proud and self-important about being wrong than suffer the humbling experience of correction. We would rather live vain, empty existences of flattering delusion than face the beauty and the terror of truth. Turns out that ignorance really is bliss.

Let me give you a compelling example: for eons, Hebrews, and then later Romans, Europeans, and Americans, were guided by a transcription of centuries of oral Hebrew myth regarding the origins of man. God raised man up from the earth and blew the breath of life into him. That’s a pretty flattering story, that a mighty sky god made us in his image and likeness, instead of the reverse. It’s no wonder that people bought and buy into it so readily and happily, even aside from the trouble of having to find a theory less utterly preposterous.

In 1859, a brilliant naturalist who had spent his entire adult life in careful, detached observation of natural phenomena, proposed a very sane and sensible theory, that man evolved from lower mammals, and that different species all come into existence by the slow-but-sure combination of nature and time. 146 years of subsequent science has affirmed his key contentions, adding volumes of data and an ever-growing fossil record to flesh out the idea that man is just a highly intelligent animal, and not a thing apart from the animal kingdom. While this version of the story is true, it is quite the opposite of the other one: it is decidedly unflattering.

The same 146 years later, we have demented monkeys clinging to the book of nomadic herdsmen, prehistoric savages that knew virtually nothing about the world around them, because the silly, primitive lies of that book make them happy, and the cold, unflattering clinical truths of Origin of the Species make them sad. That’s what this is all about, you know. Science is factual and provable, and Hebrew myth is factually and provably mythical, but very many people are so in love with hearing the lie that the sky god breathed life into clay that they plug their ears and shout out the people telling them that they are just nature’s newest model of primate. As Jack Nicholson once said, they cannot handle the truth.

An opinion is not a means of inquiry, of truth seeking. It is a gesture of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, apes beating on their chests to ward off fistfights that they aren’t sure they can win. You thought you were informing someone? No, you are, through the rhetorical force of your opinion, attempting to gain power over someone, to convince them of the rightness of your ideas so that they will act in accordance with your desires. All this time you thought you were showing others the light through the prettiness of your words, when in fact your tone of voice was telling other men to fear and respect you, women to mate with you. What you thought was an elegant verbal exercise was little more than you trying to control territory, climb the rungs of animal power hierarchies, and get laid.

Now my version of what an opinion is, being itself an opinion, is all of the things that I just told you. So even if you agree, don’t take it too seriously. Don’t ever take anything anyone tells you for granted without holding it aloft like a jeweler, exposing its facets and flaws to the invasive light of rigorous scrutiny. The fact that people don’t do this is how they get talked into so many damned fool ideas about things, without even knowing that they’re being indoctrinated.

Because that's just, I'm afraid, the way we are.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Late, as nearly always, I step into my English 501 seminar for the first day. There are only two seats left surrounding the collection of folding tables bunched together, surrounded by office chairs in the Knights of the Round Table kind of setting the grad courses all use.

I take the one directly to the left of where Dr. Walker is going to sit. While this once would have been intimidating, I’ve been rather relaxed of late. There’s the added bonus that this is my third class with the guy, and the fact that I, half the faculty, and most of the English grads got roaring drunk with him on Friday night at the “welcome, new grads” party he holds annually at his house.

Two seats to the left of me is Jessica, the gorgeous new feminist theory student who I saw at the party, perpetually surrounded by nine guys hitting on her at once. Homey don’t play that, so I stayed out of the feeding frenzy. If there is meant to be a time, I think, there will be a time. I just look over at her and offer a smile.

We move class over to the library, where we’re to be instructed on how to use the electronic informational sources. I make pleasant small talk with Jess on the way over. I already know all of this library stuff, of course, because I had to do all of it last Spring, when I started here, with no instructional course at all. I learned by screwing things up and cursing until I figured matters out for myself, a hard but effective method of learning.

I begin to zone out from boredom, thinking instead about this delightful young woman next to me. She’s from a tiny little college, and is a little intimidated by the bigness of this place, the huge library and sprawling campus. Perspective is a funny thing, because coming from a 50,000 undergrad population like Ohio State to here, I was taken aback by how quaint and personal everything seemed. Objects on the ground look small, hanging from the Buckeye tree.

As the lecture winds down, a tiny kindness pops into my head. “Would you like a tour of the library,” I ask Jess, wishing someone had done that for me.

“Sure,” she says, with a look of pleasant surprise. Most people, I am beginning to conclude, don’t say things like this. I didn’t until rather recently.

So we tour the huge two floors of William Randall Library, going through the alphabetized journals she’ll need to use so often, the reference, the café—upstairs, through the sprawling stacks, seeing sections of the floor that I’ve never seen before because I had no cause to see them, seeing study rooms along the periphery I never knew existed. When we’re through, we keep talking, and so I suggest we do so outside, not to bother the people trying to study in quiet. We find a park bench and then, when it begins to rain, sit under a stone awning to wait it out. We’re talking about serious things, like God and physics and anthropology, and not-serious things, like Irish dive bars and singing drunk. She laughs at something that I say, leaning over and touching my arm lightly. This is, from everything I’ve read, a Good Sign.

“What are you doing Thursday,” she interjects. Those stereotype-busting feminist girls, I tell you.

“Nothing. You want to hang out?”

“Well, I was wondering if you wanted to sit in on the class I’m a T.A. for.” My heart sinks, just a little. “But I’d like to hang out, too.” My tail perks up slightly.

She’s late for dinner and I’m late for class, so she scribbles down her number before I can even ask, hands it to me with a coy smile and hurries off. A very smart, pleasant, beautiful 22-year-old woman has invited my company, all because I took a moment to do something legitimately nice, without the sleazy taint of ulterior motive. I remind myself to do this more often.

As Sri Krishna, the disguised Lord Vishnu driving a chariot, said to his passenger Arjuna, “Focus your mind in the Lord, free from selfishness and I will give you the thing you desire.” Vishnu has been good to me today.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


Before the dawn of literacy, we know that societies passed on the wisdom and the learning of their elders through oral recitation, just as the surviving preliterate tribal societies remaining today do. The elders had taken the stories from their elders, who had done the same from theirs, stretching back so far that no one had any idea where the stories began, or how much they had changed. But they quite probably understood the lessons the stories were attempting to impart, wise, practical, instructive and cautionary anecdotes about how to conduct and not conduct oneself in this life.

One of these ancient, tribal, tales was about a time, far, far removed from the present, when people in this particular tribe did not wear clothes. They carried no shame about it, as the word for the concept had not yet been invented. They worked and spoke naked, made love unhidden from the other beasts, lived carefree, naked lives in a simple, innocent, uncorrupted world.

Over time, as more and more words were invented and passed on, as the knowledge of worldly things grew, concepts such as possession and envy and jealousy, guilt and shame entered into the language, corrupting the paradise of ignorant innocence and sending people forth into the larger, harsher world of knowledge. They began to conceal themselves with clothing because they had lost the paradise of natural ignorance and learned a terrible thing called shame. They had learned that knowledge carries a high price.

This is a brilliant, wise parable, told by wise, practical people living lives of immediacy, in the presence of what they believed was their god.

Fast forward who-knows how many millennia later: deranged children in adult bodies are now teaching fairy tales and fables as literal truth to normal children, in an effort to ensure that they grow up to be deranged children in adult bodies like their teachers. They are teaching them that humanity arose from a man named Adam and a woman named Eve, who were kicked out of a material, actual, geographical garden by an angel with a sword. They have lost every bit of practical wisdom that the story contained for hairy Neolithic people wandering the desert of Israel, and turned it into a cruel, poisonous, murderous lie, a filthy pollution of the minds of innocents. It would be better that they were taught that the world is flat; at least that lie is harmless.

The whole world is mad that way. All scriptures should probably be rounded up and burned 100 years maximum after they are written, before everybody loses the point completely and starts believing in tales that the people who heard them originally weren't even supposed to believe. And the most disturbing thing of all is that the problem is getting worse, and not better. The more science advances knowledge, the more it, seems, evryone else ignores it.

Food Chain.

My mind has made an inquiry recently about of the kind of body that it sometimes governs; like any insight, it has called into question some of the practices that this body has learned to employ—to seriously investigate their ethical justifications and necessity.

My body is that of an upright-walking primate, a mammalian, male ape that is the product of between two and six million years of hominid evolution. In previous incarnation, it looked, probably, much like the thick, swarthy, furry, dark-skinned things, the few remaining holdovers from a prehistoric, nearly-bygone epoch, that have been transplanted from Africa into modern zoos and that we call, in our highly-refined, rarefied, mammalian language, gorillas.

A long, long time ago, this ape’s ancestors began walking more on their hind legs than the other apes, using their forepaws more. They, very slowly, became versed in simple tool use, and for a few million years this was possibly all that separated them from their slightly-less-intelligent gorilla relatives.

But, slowly and surely, a strange thing began to happen: the higher intelligence of the tool-using apes succeeded as a formula, their bigger brains giving them an applicable advantage over their contentedly stupid cousins. But those brains, those things that consumed so much electrochemical energy, demanded fuel, a kind of fuel that leaves and shoots could not provide: they demanded an intense caloric source that could not be found in the vegetable kingdom--they demanded protein.

And so a certain kind of ape, or rather, as nature works in diversified fits and starts, certain kinds of apes, began to transform from predated to predating creatures, suddenly making other creatures, insects at first, but then others slow enough for them to catch and eat, and sometimes, if we believe what we have found, each other, deeply uneasy about their motivations. We started killing things for their caloric value, having no idea what caloric value meant, because these apes felt much more satisfied by a bit of flesh-eating than they did by hours of snacking on leaves.

This strategy was an effective one, leading to more sophisticated primates that used their hands to walk even less, and eventually not at all, with even bigger brains, making even more kinds of animal fear their needs, ultimately even the very big ones. The apes sent gigantic, hairy, tusked creatures into extinction via their unslakeable thirst for flesh and its embedded protein, and their intelligent ability to collaborate against things more powerful than any of them individually. They became collectively formidable animals, dispatching animals with lesser intellectual abilities, living by their need for calorie-intensive food so that they might continue their upward quest toward having even bigger brains and more dexterous forepaws.

My existence is the offshoot of all of this evolutionary social climbing: my body is that of a mammal, a highly intelligent, upright-walking, anthropoid ape of the genus Homo. It does ape things, has ape desires, and yet through the power of its magnificent capacity for communication through an elaborate system of complex utterances, has learned to name things and remember the names of things that other primates have taught it. It speaks; it hears.

As that of a protein-lusting, hominid ape, my body wants things from me. It has a brain and a nervous system that experience instinctive impulses and, through the power of its advanced capacity for language, and hence symbolic thought, learns names for the impulses. Instinctive aversion to something, in the dialect of an ape in North America, Britain, Australia, or South Africa, is called fear. We have other words like love and grief, to describe chemical bonding, attachment and bereavement. But mostly, my animal wants the flesh of other animals, so that it can be satisfied, a thing we call hunger, so that, consequently, future apes can have even bigger brains and still-more-dexterous forepaws.

Life lives by killing. This truth is inescapable. But now, at this juncture, I must choose what I kill, or merely to have killed by others, in order that I might obtain my protein.

A pig, as we have named a certain animal in English, is an intelligent mammal that experiences the same sensory impulses that my animal does, has instinctive understandings such as fear and joy, like my animal, communicates to other pigs by primitive language, and can learn things by memory and hence transform its existence into something that it was not at birth. It can learn names and commands, develop aversions to situations not naturally unpleasant, become depressed, suffer loss, attach itself to mates. It is smarter than the dog that we have come, in this culture, to adopt and love as family. It does not experience any of the qualities that my animal does in the refined sense that my animal experiences them, but that does not mean, contrary to conveniently constructed fictions, that it does not experience them at all.

I cannot kill and eat this animal anymore; it is to close to my own.

Sure, in the modern world, I am two or three steps removed from the actual slaughter of any pig, but by purchasing its flesh, I am participating in the slaughter as surely as if I had done it myself. The trauma and the terror it experiences, knowing that it is about to be culled, as higher animals always do, is something I can no longer abide. It is, for me and only me, a sin in which I may no longer take part.

I apply the same standard, now, to cows: not nearly as smart as pigs, but still too intuitive for me to kill and eat in good conscience. This is painful; I love to eat beef steak. But, unfortunately, from my saddened perspective, my consumption of it has to go.

We move to chickens: chickens are flightless birds, derived from ancient reptiles, with a program so based in the nervous system that if one severs a chicken’s tiny brain from its body by amputating its head, its body continues to run about until it dies of blood loss. They are scavengers, so stupid that they, in captivity, peck the eyes out of other chickens, believing the eyes to be insects. Chickens, I conclude, are still on the menu. Naturally and logically, so are their eggs.

Fish, I think: fish are primordial ancestors to amphibians, that can be taught nothing, that exist in their inherent capacities to swim, fertilize eggs, and die. Tuna steak, I concede, goes on the menu as well, right after the chicken-wing appetizer. There will be, it appears, no problem fulfilling my body’s call for protein, after all.

Shellfish are enormous insects, some closely, genetically related to cockroaches. They act on a prepaid chemical agenda not terribly different than that of a tomato. I can still go to Joe’s Crab Shack, I comfort myself.

Nuts, while having nerve endings and experiencing pain when eaten, have nothing resembling brain matter, and hence as much awareness of what is happening as if I had chosen to eat rocks. Even PETA lets me eat cashews without guilt. Okay, there we have it.

I have seen things differently, and must act accordingly. I may no longer eat things that have the intuition to be frightened of me. It seems an act of cruelty, an understandable and perfectly natural one, but not in any sense a necessary one.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

R.I.P. Scotty.

James Doohan (1920-2005), sleep well. As Montgomery Scott on Star Trek, the Canadian Doohan put on a fine Highland trill, treating us to inimitable deleveries like, "Ahem gevin 'edr ell she's gah, Ceptin," from his constantly embattled seat in the ship's engine room. He didn't much care for the fact that he would spend his entire acting career typecast by the role, but that didn't stop him from sucking it up and making a nice living from four seasons of television and seven movies as Scotty.

He gave 'er all she had in real life, too, fathering his last child at age 80. Watching his reruns on TV growing up was a pleasure I still remember, and so, while happy that his long battle with Alzheimer's is at an end, think that perhaps the world should slow to warp factor four, just for a day, in his remembrance.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Light.

I have had a day, unlike any day that I have ever had before, in which I have seen things that I never knew I could see, all because some interpolation into The Mahabharata called The Bhagavad-Gita suggested that I try sitting up straight with my chin up and breathing deeply as a means to achieve perceptual clarity and relaxation.

Try this for long enough in a sitting position, and then see how long you can keep doing it while in your daily activities, and you will come to some insights that you didn’t realize yourself capable of: you will begin to realize that that bitch Jane at work was never the person bothering you; she never did anything wrong to you at all. You created that situation in your imagination. What Jane, or Bill, or Sancho, or whoever did was stand too close too you, causing your ancient, primate brain to start producing panic hormones which in turn causes your breathing to grow shallow, which creates more panic chemicals because now your brain is telling you that there is a threatening animal standing too close for comfort and that it isn’t getting enough oxygen. But no—for most people Jane’s just a bitch.

Breathing deeply calms the panic of the brain, which allows it to fall in tune with the senses, to become aware of the body in way it probably hasn’t been since the creation of an egotistical identity in early infancy. In turn, it begins to recognize things that were causing it be uncomfortable, that all this time the created identity of the ego was misdirectedly blaming on people and things outside of it. That’s right, you’re angry at Tom because you didn’t wipe well and have got an itchy bum; Juan is an asshole because you skipped breakfast; your boss is a tyrant because you’re hung-over, sleep deprived, nervous from the caffeine, winded and exhausted because you’re out of shape. You don’t need to change a single one of those other people, and you wouldn’t stay happy for very long if you did, because they weren’t the ones causing your unhappiness. You were and are causing your unhappiness. You are the problem. The world is fine, doing its own thing, as it has been for 4.5 billion years. It’s you. Get in touch with that idea.

Keep breathing, as you go out into the world—into Wal Mart, Costco, the local stadium, anywhere a lot of people can be found and just keep breathing, holding your head up, and looking at every single person that you pass. You’ll be able to do this now, without looking away, because you’re breathing and heart rate are going to tell your brain that you are calm and unafraid. Keep looking into the eyes of every single stranger you encounter, free from the chaotic maelstrom of your preconceptions, your ideas, your opinions, your past and future. Just look at them, and watch how their eyes shimmer and twitch. Keep breathing and don’t look away, stay in this place for as long as you can. Don’t worry; 90% of them will look away in terror in less than two seconds, because you have just issued them a challenge by rules of their DNA, by their long evolutionary history, stating that prolonged eye contact is a challenge to fight or mating overtone, just like it is for dogs. Just smile if they do look back, and you may unexpectedly find yourself in a very pleasant conversation. Do this for at least half an hour, carefully looking at the eyes and face of every person you encounter, the movements of their lips and nostrils. Don’t get scared; breathe.

No go to the zoo, or if you haven’t got that, the library to pick up an issue of National Geographic, or watch The Nature Channel. Start looking at apes and monkeys, the way their eyes move, the way they maintain or avoid eye contact, the way their eyes shimmer and twitch. If you can do this calmly, it’s gonna hit you like a ton of bricks: that’s right—you’re an ape, and I’m an ape, and you’re looking right at your-not-as-precocious cousins.

The incredible thing about the human brain is that its capacity for imagination and memory are so powerful that it can manufacture for itself an identity, commonly termed the ego, which believes itself separate from the larger organic entirety. To our knowledge, we are the only primate capable of doing this, but that’s only to our knowledge—because we can’t teach chimpanzees to speak or write. We can, and have, taught chimps sign language, and when we do they invent new combinations of words, including vulgarities involving bodily wastes and sex organs, just like their smarter cousins. Evolution is as real as the air you are breathing, but our imagination’s capacity for fiction is so powerful that billions of upright-walking, hominid apes, Homo sapiens sapiens have talked themselves into some crazy mass denial of what they are and where they came from, to a point where only scientists and philosophers are privy to the truth.

But because we can talk and write, drive cars, erect buildings, and have successfully outlasted all of the other hominid races, silly, vain, religious sects begin to craft the outlandish lie that they never existed at all, that the extensive and growing fossil record of their existence is all some kind of plant by a fictional character from Hebrew myth called Satan, or a persistent error on the part of deluded P.H.D. anthropologists who, after all, spend their whole lives studying the matter. The writing and the building and the talking just make us very smart apes with very dexterous forepaws, which is why evolution’s verdict is that we will eventually be the only apes, because that’s just how things work.

Something followed with this understanding, that these same “religious” folks’ understanding of the concept of God is so primitive, childish, and stupid that they deny evolution based on some crackpot belief in magic, that poof, one day man appeared, just like a group of nomadic Jews, eons before the dawn of science, living 5,000 years ago in a desert, with a language too primitive to contain punctuation, and hence impossible to accurately translate, concluded, without necessarily even believing that it was anything other than a convenient myth. They believe that an omniscient and omnipotent God could not possibly have had the foresight to include anything as wonderfully subtle, as splendid and democratic and fitting as natural selection in His divine plan. Idiots.

So there I was, an ape that took 32 years to recognize what it was, walking home from Wal-Mart, when it began to rain, rather hard. My rent check and a utility bill were in my knapsack, and my cell phone was in my front pocket, and so, rather than sulk, my ape brain wisely pointed out that perhaps my ape body should seek shelter. It did, finding, an awning attached to a building that once housed an office of some kind. The awning had a dry bed of straw underneath it, the perfect place to sit and wait out the rain, or at least the heavy rain.

We fight because there are too many of us.

It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning, but more painful. We fight bar fights and skirmishes and World Wars, thinking that we are fighting for France or Allah or Democracy or the Celestial Empire, when we are fighting because we are in a state of perpetual unease about being too close too one another, in a population so dense that 2 million years of hominid evolution is already telling us it is a state of territorial invasion, that we are already at war with one another based on violations of our instinctive, animal ideas about space. We are fighting because all territorial animals pushed too close to one another erect hierarchies of power, to dominate or submit to that which it can no longer escape. We’re monkeys flinging poop who have concocted the greatest delusion in all of the history of the natural world, that our capacity for language and hence accumulated learning makes us exempt from the rules that govern all other mammals, that we are enforcing and defending Higher Purposes with our wars, that only animals engage in wars over territory, that we are Human Beings, with names and jobs and iPods. Human Beings couldn’t possibly create imaginary verbal justifications for things we were naturally predisposed to do. Never mind that we look like primates, eat like primates, copulate like primates, eliminate like primates, share nearly all of out DNA with chimpanzees, and if you’ve ever seen too untrained guys slug it out, fight just like any other ape. Our reasons are different, because we say they are, and because we have the capacity that no other animal has—to tell lies to ourselves and others.

All this time, I was taught and came to believe, due to the belief’s very flattering nature, that I was something other than what I am. Today I have seen something with eyes that have never before seen it, that I am just a very smart ape, and so is everyone else, decorating ourselves to attract mates, fighting over whose patch of grass this is, living chemically dictated lives that we distort into the twisted logic of language. I cannot explain how terrifying and simultaneously liberating this understanding is.


Toby is a man, who has chosen the path of the warrior: he is a marine, 46 years old, fit and strong, now serving as a contractor for the armed forces, and who has done terrible things in the defense of the interests of his country. We talk, frequently, at the local bar that I retreat to after long days of work.

I asked Toby, recently, if he was haunted by the ghosts of the many people he has killed. “Why do you think I am here, drinking beer with you,” was his response. Fair enough: I felt a profound pity and admiration for Toby, all mingled into one—he has been a slayer so that other people don’t have to be, and yet must sleep with the fact that he has deprived families of fathers, bereft wives of their husbands, taken life so that other life may prosper. That is, doubtless, a hard burden to bear. It is a weight that has destroyed his marriage, cost him his children, and now, plays itself out in conversations with a man he hardly knows.

There is no need to dovetail into the greater divisiveness of politics, an art I presently find so distasteful that I quickly wash my hands of it: Toby and I might not see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, but he has been the man on the wall, as Jack Nicholson, in a mediocre film, described him, guarding the gates of civilization, dealing with the unpleasant, violent realities that such duties entail. Such has, in return, leveled and ruined him. Now, a basically naive graduate student with little direct knowledge of the chaotic world he speaks of is the outlet for his entirely justified resentment.

I am, it should be noted, a patriot—not in the modern, nationalist, jingoistic silliness of the word, but in the sense that a Washington might have understood it: I believe that what has been built here, this nation, is a thing worth defending rather than an object for worship, and would drive an ambulance, recite a broadcast, run supplies or build fortifications to preserve it. I could not, and would not, take another life to preserve it.

Toby is a man who has had to make a harder choice: whether to obey orders, save his own life, and advance a cause he believes in by watching other human beings die in front of him by his hand, or to be a victim, dying by the like in return. He has done what he has had to do, badly disrupting his personal life in the process, and I am grateful to him for it.

But I do not envy that decision.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


I am walking across the campus of UNCW late on a Monday evening, cutting through on my way back from the store, content with the sultry evening air and the twelve bottles of PBR by my side, breathing deeply and trying to block out the pain in my aching left knee, which is probably ticketed for a date with a surgeon’s knife that I can ill afford right now. I am inhaling and exhaling, taking it all in: the rhythmic chirping of the cicadas, the stately conifers which dominate the campus, the humming of the utility lights and a generator in the distance, the smell of the earth and the trees, the frogs exploring the night in search of food. I am feeling calm and serene, quintessentially alive and present. I adore these meditative, solitary moments, in which I am myself and not the bundle of neuroses and expectations that I so often allow myself to be made into.

A strange thought pops into my head: Early Man got to experience these moments so much more than I ever can, in those pre-verbal days of branching out across the valleys and savannas of Africa. I feel the oddest sensation of envy for creatures that lived and died 100,000 years ago. They actually knew what it meant to be alive, and I only get it in fits and starts, moments of lucidity between epochs of confusion and disunity.

Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful for the marvels of technology that mean that I will sleep in a sound structure with air conditioning on this hot night, that I have lived a healthy 32 years due to the wizardry of modern medicine, that my torn ACL is not the death sentence that it would have been so long ago, when constant movement was essential for survival. I do not envy Early Man’s stomach full of parasites, his painfully short existence, or his near total ignorance of the world surrounding him. But I envy the wonder of discovery that each day must have brought, the profound focus that must have been the everyday when humanity was still very far from the top of the food chain, when daydreaming was not an idle luxury as it is now, but an invitation for large predators to consider you fair game.

The power of memory, of imagistic storage and abstract thought, has been, without question, an evolutionary boon to us. It is what allows information to be passed from generation to generation, for glittering cities to be built, for science to move forward. It is what makes us a unique animal, one that can improve its own condition extraneous to the intolerably slow drip of natural selection. That can’t be a bad thing, right?

But it is also what makes us think about what we’re having for dinner while we’re cutting the grass, spend the entire day fuming over a perceived insult that happened hours earlier, wake up angry and discontented about things that transpired before or, even worse, haven’t occured yet. In the dizziness of abstract and mnemonic thought, immersed in the distant, bygone, imaginary worlds past and future, we so often react to the people and activities that we are dealing with in the here and now as an irritant, a nuisance—a distraction from our distraction. It’s the hurried, harried kind of thinking that makes us rush out the door without our car keys, bang our shins on things that have been in the same place for time immemorial, forget about our loved ones and our obligations because we’re too wrapped up in ourselves. And that can’t be a good thing.

So I’ve been studying Hindu scripture and practicing meditation, on someone else’s suggestion, to try to maximize the frequency of those here moments, when I’m looking at what I’m looking at, talking to whom I’m talking to, and not being bothered or pleased with something that happened ten minutes or twelve years ago, or might happen tomorrow. This is the fourth time I’ve gone the route of seeking out spiritual practices to correct my naturally whiny, selfish, petulant temperament, and each time teaches me something that the previous ones didn’t. Well, obviously, since I discontinued all the previous attempts.

But Early Man didn’t need this route. Before language, he couldn’t translate sensory input into words, and hence didn’t have to go through elaborate rituals to stop himself from conceptualizing and compartmentalizing immediately compelling and fascinating phenomena. Before the word “tree,” there was just a mass of cells standing in front of you that had to be dealt with on its own merits, much like when, today, we watch our cats sniffing for enthralled minutes on end around new additions to our household like, say, a cardboard box on the floor, which we dismiss in seconds as mundane and forgettable. Early man lived with a perpetual and assiduous sense of wonder, the riveting focus of nothing—not food, not shelter, not safety, not health—being guaranteed.

I feel it significant to note that I do not wish to join the folly of others, typically silly, spoiled, misguided college students, in romanticizing tribal existence. Those that live in it now, like those folk in the dawn of prehistory, live brutal, hard, brief existences. I would change places with them for a spell, for the amazing perspective that it might convey, but at the end of the day am happy to have shelter and utilities, stable government and the blessings of Western modernity. I am no leftist moonbat, crowing about a lifestyle I know almost nothing about and probably could not stomach, preaching a gospel that I have no intention of living. But as I walk across the mini-forest of my university, taking in the residual wildness of a tiny piece of the American South, I am alerted to a truth: Early Man and those that have inherited his desperate, clannish poverty in the modern world, may not live long—but they certainly do get a chance to live. Would that we all have that.

As William Wallace, at least in the version Mel Gibson created of him, once said, “Every man dies. Not every man ever lives.” Wise words.

Saturday, August 13, 2005


It was toward the end of a long day off, and I was hungry. I’d had a good, productive workout in the mini-gym my apartment complex features, followed by a vigorous swim in the pool. I had paid my utilities, breaking myself until payday in the process. I had, this is to say, earned myself a Hardee’s Thickburger. I checked my wallet: two dollars. I scrounged up 47 cents in change, and then found one of the coupon sheets that my mail is bombarded with daily, carefully tearing out the “1/3 pound Thickburger, $1.99” selection. Since one of those babies probably has about 1,500 or so calories and 100 grams of fat, I figured that and an ice water ought to just about do it for the evening.

I walked along the grass beside the ditch (there is no sidewalk, as Wilmington is not, as I have mentioned before, particularly pedestrian-friendly) looking forward to my rare ground beef indulgence. I could probably give beef up altogether, were it not my down-to-the-DNA, uncontrollable urge to occasionally have a very bloody NY strip or rib eye. I just can’t help it; I love steak. But today a ground angus Thickburger was sounding just fine.

As I reached the door on the drive-through side and pulled, I was rather surprised and dismayed to find it locked. As I walked to the door on the other side and got the same story, my surprise and dismay flooded into my temples in a rush, transforming itself into anger with deft alacrity. It wasn’t even ten o’clock. How on earth could a place that sells food 24 hours a day have a dining room that closed before ten?

Hardee’s dining room, like White Castle’s before it, used to be open round the clock. That they both stopped doing so is to me one of the most disgustingly irresponsible business practices in current use. I can see so more effective way to put thousands of people under the influence of alcohol and marijuana on the road than to cater directly to the late-night munchies inherent to each drug, and then tell them that you’ll only sell food to people in cars, all so a company can save six nightly hours of minimum wage by staffing one fewer cashier.

I’ve been feeling rather serene of late, and this incident had made me lose my temper for the first time in several days. As I started to walk down to Taco Bell, I could feel my thought process swirl and muddy, my face grow hot and my blood pressure escalate. How dare they refuse me my…Thickburger?

I was getting all fired up over something called a Thickburger.

I stopped suddenly, and took several long, deep breaths. I wasn’t bothered over drunk driving and bad business practices. I was upset because I was exhausted and hot and hungry, and had to walk a few extra blocks to get something to eat. My mind had, as it so often does, read a few physical indicators like skin temperature, blood sugar level, and food content, and concluded that I was righteously indignant over the wicked commercial habits of a 24-hour fast food chain. Funny how the mind does that, and how so often we don’t realize that we’re angry about something when actually it's just a convenient substitute for something much simpler.

A Thickburger. People go through life paralyzed, blind, severely retarded, maimed by war, horribly burned in house fires, living with cancer, victimized by rape and sexual abuse, and maintain daringly positive attitudes while I’m busy getting hot under the collar over a hamburger, and one with a ridiculous name at that. I thought of myself looking back at my earthly existence from the hereafter, and bookmarking this very instant as being a profound and revealing testament to why I wasn’t any happier.

I breathed for a little bit longer, feeling the dizziness of my anger and excitement begin to melt away. I laughed briefly at myself, something I’m finally learning to do after far too many years of taking myself seriously as a judge, and went to foist my two-plus dollars worth of business on the still-open Taco Bell. The food tasted good and the staff were nice. There was nothing really wrong after all, no problem but the one created in my imagination.

On my way home, I saw a beat-down, 1980s Ford Thunderbird with tinted windows and the bass banging away, followed closely by a Wilmington Police cruiser. I put two and two together and immediately concluded what was about to happen. As the Thunderbird pulled into the right turn lane (never do that when a cop car is riding your tail; it’s guilty-looking and asking them to throw the lights on), the cops followed them and promptly threw the lights on. Since they weren't speeding, I suspected that the cops had run the plate and got back something of note when they did. I further suspected that the population at the New Hanover County Correctional Facility was about to go up by one or two.

Now those guys have a problem, I thought.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


Peter Jennings, rest in peace.

Peter Jennings could tell a story, calm as the eye of a hurricane, witty as John Cleese, insightful as the Buddha, while the world, and his newsroom, undulated and contorted around him. That's genius, folks, and whether you agree with his version of any narrative or no, you should at least agree that genius of his kind is a rare commodity in this world. Peter Jennings was a prodigy, witty and photogenic, eloquent and puissant, a man with natural and acquired gifts so overpowering that he ruled the air for decades, dispensing his charisma as if it were penny-candy, speaking his news as if it were the very truth of God itself.

A man, a single Canadian-born man, told me things with wit and candor for many years for ABC television. I will miss his stories. You may tell me that they're all lies, and we can debate that another day, but you can't tell me that his stories weren't polished and magnificent. He was, as the most enduring and important writer in the English language described someone like him, a man, take him for all in all--we shall not see his like again.

I am saddened by his passing.

Killing the Cat.

I was stumbling home from the local pool-hall/tavern that occupies the bulk of my free time here in this wonderfully, blessedly, sultry and hot, coastal North Carolina Summer. I’d stopped drinking at a good point, at which I was euphorically high, happy and inquisitive, and, as always, a mere 300 yard walk from my apartment.

As I promenaded down the cut-across walk that takes me through the seedy Campus Edge apartment community to my slightly-more-reputable Campus Walk across the street, I saw a frog occupying the sidewalk just ahead of me, minding his own business as only a frog can.

But I was not in the mood to mind just mine. I love frogs and have been fascinated with them since I was a little boy; a compelling, childishly curious impulse came over me, and I swept down upon the frog, captured him, and raised him aloft to examine him. I had no intention at all of hurting him, though 400 million years of amphibian evolution was, without a doubt, giving him the very opposite impression. In the wild when a creature with 600 times your mass rudely snatches you skyward, chances are that your final place on the food chain has just been brusquely and irreversibly established.

So I understood the frog squirming a bit, although he had about as little chance of escaping as if I actually had intended to eat him--it's not hard for a 155lb adult human to contain a four-ounce animal. But I just wanted to look at him for a minute, observe his markings, monitor his increasing panic. Amphibians are much more perceptive than reptiles, sharing many features of their tiny brains and nervous systems with humans. I watched his breathing grow more rapid and his eyes shift more suddenly, and wondered, seriously wondered, what level of cognition was at work there? Did his fear in any aspect resemble the kind of fear that I would have if a 90,000lb colossus rudely plucked me off the ground one evening? Or was it simply a primal sense of self preservation?

As he evacuated what seemed to be a quart of fluids onto my arms, I learned that we at least would have one action in common in the situation. Who knew a frog could hold that much liquid? I dropped him into the grass like he was radioactive, where he doubtless scampered away while I just thought, yuuuck.

And then I started laughing, a slow laugh building into a hysterical cackle, that would have made anyone in the vicinity immediately question my sanity, with possible good cause. I got exactly what I deserved: I wished to observe a small creature’s terror, like a Greek god playing whimsically with humanity, and the last-ditch natural defense of a little, Mesozoic amphibian did exactly what it was earmarked to do; it made me let him go.

As I was at my kitchen sink, exerting five minutes of furious scrubbing to cleanse the frog-filth from my arms, I wondered about the concept of inquisitiveness, about how the higher mammals’ natural need to investigate is both our greatest strength and most prolific source of predicament. I was reminded of an aphorism, wise and utile, and like most things wise and utile, perennially neglected.

Sometimes, curiosity does kill the cat.