Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Feeling Puny

            Sick.  Feeling puny is how we’ve always said it in my family.  And I am sick.  And I do feel puny.  I have a sinus infection.  I just blew my nose and was treated to a thick glob of mucus and blood.  Puny indeed.  When I was young, I heard the phrase and I thought…yes, when you are sick you feel small, overpowered, belittled.  Now, I hear the phrase, and I think that I am always small.  That humanity is small.  We just have absurdly large egos. 
            Depending on your criteria, you could say that humans are the dominant species on earth.  We have destroyed and built many things.  We are not puny on the superficial surface of the world’s stage.  But we are indeed small and powerless.
            My sinus infection will go away.  But there are other germs and diseases which do not go away.  And they can strike at any time.  It is amazing that we are able to feel even a little bit powerful when we can be struck down with no warning.  I could wake up tomorrow and go to the doctor and find out that my sinus infection is not really a sinus infection and that I am going to die.  Not a happy thought.
            Our powers of self delusion never cease to amaze me.  Even though we know that sickness and death are an inevitable part of life…even though we have been witness to it…we can ignore it and go about our lives safe in the self-deluded knowledge that everything will be fine.  But we know deep down that someday things will not be fine. 
            I’m not saying that I want to go through life morbidly obsessed with my own mortality.  More than anything, I am impressed that our brains have the power to wrap us in such a thorough gauze of denial.  We take so many things for granted.  Our brains are our protectors.  They make us forget past pain and heartache…they fill us with false optimism.  And we don’t even know how the things work.
            I slept pretty much all day.  It is weird to be disconnected from the world.  When you sleep all day, you miss a lot.  And in between naps you have a lot of time to think.  And I have been thinking about the fact that something I can’t even see can make me feel like my head is going to explode.  I have also been thinking that next week I will not even be able to recall the feeling of my impending head explosion.  My brain will recall that it happened, but not the intensity of the feeling.  And thank goodness for that.
            I am feeling puny.  And part of the reason is because my brain is looking out for me.  It allows me to feel what I can handle.  If it did not do this, I would never get out of bed, sinus infection or not.  We are grateful sometimes.  For some things.  Often not until there is something wrong.  Today, I am grateful that I have a brain that can make me feel magnificent and puny with equal abandon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Real America

            Reality is a spurious concept at best.  At worst, it is an unattainable ideal, eternally unreachable.  Reality is what you make of it, and it is mired in the restrictive nature of perception.  Americans, like people the world over, cannot truly grasp reality, because there is nothing to grasp.  Reality is a fog that slips through fervent fingers.  Or perhaps there are too many realities to choose from and, in trying to grab for more than one, we come up empty-handed.  Either way, the result is the same: we end up holding desperately to whatever elusive strands of reality we can find and hope that this will anchor us. 
Reality is amorphous.  It is an ever-changing parlor trick.  We alter our individual realities with chemicals and belief systems, credos and affiliations.  We corrupt our already shaky concept of reality by trying to deny it, or more often, by our unflinching belief that our own reality is the true reality.  Perhaps the nature of reality is more questionable today as we redefine what being an American means in this new and smaller world.  We depend on illegal immigrants to support the American way of life, and then we have the nerve to resent them.  Thanks to the Internet, we cultivate “friendships” with people we have never shared a meal with and consider this normal.  We fight wars that are steeped in so many levels of surreality that we gradually begin to ignore the conflicting reports and the conflicted emotions they create.  It is interesting that we live in a culture so obsessed with “reality”, yet spend so much time trying to escape it.  This is because reality is the ‘busy work’ of life.  It is the Xeroxed homework assignment that insults our intelligence.  It is something we hide from, yet supposedly want.  It is easy to assume that reality has been weakened over time, but the fundamental fallacies of reality have been debated since the beginning of recorded history.  American reality today is what it always has been, an intricate arrangement of smoke and mirrors. 
As humans, we crave reassurance that our reality is unshakeable and find solace wherever we can.  One of the ways we do this is by deciding that there is something ‘real’…that beyond our changing ideals, there are certain undeniable truths.  This notion is patently false.  America is a country divided.  Imagine Bill Gates’ reality compared with that of a man who works at a car wash and struggles to pay the bills.  There is a vast disparity between the way individual Americans view their country, their culture, and even their history.  We speak of melting pots and rely on the myth of the American Dream, hoping that it will unite us, but it does nothing of the sort.  One of the many evils done by the American Dream is to convince the populace that, as Americans, we can be anything we want to be.  This is drilled into our heads from grade school on, yet it is an insidious exaggeration.  Very few people get to be what they want to be.  Most people end up settling, due to circumstance and behavioral modeling, for lives that closely resemble those of their parents.  The kind of outlandish success stories suggested by the American Dream are the exception, not the norm.  America is a country dependent upon the idea that there is no one American archetype, that all Americans are unique and that our differences bring us strength.  Every day we eat food that was harvested by people living within our borders, subject to our laws, helping to support our economy…yet they are not Americans in the eyes of the government.  The hypocrisy inherent in this is shameful.  When we expect reality to save us, we set ourselves up for a fall.  There is no unifying reality.  There was never supposed to be.  This is what freedom is all about.  We are free to be hypocrites.  We are free to deny what is right in front of us.  We are free to believe whatever we want to believe, and we are free to believe that what our fellow Americans believe is wrong.  We are free to decide what is real.  This is not an ideology that lends itself to one defining reality.  America, if it is to live up to its ideals, must embrace abstraction and accept that the exception often makes the rule.     
We cannot discuss reality without looking closely at technology and how it is used.  We watch scripted “reality” TV shows and play hyper-realistic video games.  We make instant connections with people all over the world.  We are able to track Lindsay Lohan’s bikini changes by the minute.  We have created a cult of celebrity that is far from being real, but that often passes for something close to it.  Is it so strange then that we are drawn to an environment, like the Internet, where we really can be what we want it to be?  Or something closer to it, at least.  Real life is chaotic.  It is tough to construct oneself on the fly.  Not so when you are designing a Facebook page.  Even a cursory perusal of the site illuminates the sad and ironic truth.  There are bartenders pretending to be architects.  Men pretending to be women.  Children pretending to be adults.  Granted, these are extreme examples; it is the less obvious fabrications which reveal the sadness that American ‘reality’ has become.  On the Internet we can portray ourselves as we wish to be rather than as we really are.  We can display only the most flattering pictures of ourselves.  We can carefully craft our words.  We can lie.  We can create a reality that is artificial.  Romeo and Juliet’s crowd had their masquerade balls.  We have chat rooms and dating sites.  And still, we are faced with the same questions.  Does this do something to diminish the ‘real’ reality?  Have we created a false world?  The answer, of course, is no.  There is no ‘real’ reality and our perceptions of the world have always been false.
We receive our view of what is ‘real’ through filters.  Some of these filters are self-imposed.  Others are imposed upon us.  It is ridiculous for us to assume that our government is operating in the same reality that we are.  They are carefully crafting the reality that future history books will attempt to capture.  America is not what it pretends to be.  Prisoners of war are tortured in secret prisons while we watch sitcoms and pretend that everything is going to be OK.  Politicians go on TV and tell blatant lies.  This is not merely liberal cynicism, nor should it come as any surprise.  Governments must lie.  Parents must lie to their children.  Spouses must lie to each other.  The cubicled number-crunchers must be led to the conclusion that their work is vital.  We must be convinced that, for humanitarian and benevolent reasons, we are occupying and destroying countries that showed no direct aggression toward us.  If we do not believe these things, then we must accept the fact that children in the middle east are dying for questionable reasons.  That the wars are failing.  That the world’s antipathy towards America grows daily.  The government must try to convince us that terrorism threatens the American way of life, just as terrorists must believe that America is the great oppressor.  Otherwise we are forced to acknowledge that the truth lies somewhere in between.  This informed skepticism may be the closest we can come to a true perception of reality, but it doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.
            The appeal of reality lies in logic.  If the world is really as it appears, then we can assume a set of logical conclusions about it.  And yet the world is largely devoid of logic.  Why do we think it is acceptable to exploit illegal immigrants?  Why do we try to escape reality?  Why are we content to allow convention and rhetoric to override inquisitive common sense?  The smartest among us are those able to imagine what lies beyond reality.  This is how vaccines are discovered.  This is how great books are written.  This is how we move forward.  The mistake we make, it seems, is in assuming that reality is the divining rod we are supposed to follow.  The world is in chaos.  We are wallowing in a kind of freakish, self imposed oppression.  We try to climb the mountain of reality and we fail, when the mountain was never actually there at all.  Small talk is about as close as we come to reality.  It is a reflection of our collective banality and weakness.  A reliable stream of clichés and murmurs.  This is truth, and it is a lamentable truth indeed.  Are Americans flawed in their view of reality?  This is like asking a blind man if his shirt matches his suit.  Reality is a sham and, even at its most convincing, it is a boring one.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


            My daughter asks this question a lot.  All kids do.  It is a cliché.  I know it.  You know it. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?  All the time.  Comedians make jokes about it.  Sitcom audiences can’t get enough of it.  We roll our eyes.  But the most important question remains unanswered.  When did we stop asking why?  And why?
            I have worked with young people for a long time and one of the first things I tell them is that curiosity is important.  Perhaps one of the most important of human characteristics.  Some people are naturally more curious than others.  I have always counted myself lucky that curiosity is a trait I have in spades.  I enjoy learning.  I especially like learning about things of which I know little.  And if the teacher is enthusiastic, well, that’s a bonus. 
            I have never understood people who call a plumber and vaguely point in the direction of the bathroom when he arrives.  Or who go to a mechanic and are exasperated when he tries to explain what is wrong with their car.  I’m right there with the plumber.  I’ll hold a flashlight.  Hand him tools.  Same with the mechanic.  I want to be under the hood where the action is, not reading old greasy copies of People magazine. 
            The cool thing about this is that most people enjoy teaching.  It is human nature to want to showcase your skills.  Sure, the plumber is usually surprised.  The mechanic may initially be annoyed.  But somewhere along the way, they realize that I am hanging on their every word.  And they start telling stories.  The explanations get better.  Not just, “This is a gasket.” 
            Because I want to know why, I don’t have to call the plumber as much anymore.  This saves money.  It saves me time.  It makes me happy.  I hope that I never get tired of asking why.  The idea of it depresses me to no end. 
            I understand that people don’t like to admit that there are things they are not experts at.  I get it.  But come on.  There are a gazillion things you can’t know.  It’s not like if you don’t understand string theory you’re a bad person.  And you may never understand it. 
            We all have our limitations.  I kind of doubt that I will ever truly understand the gestalt of an internal combustion engine.  I get it for the most part.  But I don’t totally get it.  And it has been explained to me hundreds of times.  And I hope it will be explained to me a hundred times more.  There is nothing better than a patient teacher.  I’ve tried to be one, and I respect the ones I know. 
            Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist.  He worked on the Manhattan Project.  He also spent a great amount of time teaching himself to lucid dream.  He took sabbaticals to smoke weed and learn how to play the bongo drums.  He did experiments in bars on the most effective ways to pick up women.  He read great books.  He had great conversations.  He lived an absurdly interesting life and was adored by his students.  Because he never felt foolish asking why.  And he never stopped until he was dead. 
            It is all in how you hear it.  I could hear my daughter ask me why squirrels have long tails and sigh and resign myself to trying to explain it.  Instead, I choose to answer to the best of my ability.  To research it and find out more about squirrels so we can talk about them.  To revel in her curiosity and the things that it reminds me that I do know.  And especially to allow her questions to be the gentle push off the diving board and into the deep end of the things I do not know.