Acid-Trip Politics

Rick Santorum

January 4, 2012

Reading this morning about Rick Santorum’s success in the Iowa caucus vote made me wonder whether someone slipped LSD into my coffee. How else to explain a presidential candidate of a major political party doing so well while opposing birth control and advocating that states can make it illegal. Santorum is essentially saying that a man and premenopausal woman should only have sex if they’re willing for the result to be birth of a baby. He’s also saying that it’s all right for government — albeit not the federal government — to play such a life- and society-altering role in our private lives.

Let’s say Santorum gets his way. We as a nation would have many more children when we can least afford them, a lot less sex, and state governments empowered to regulate one of the most intimate aspects of our existence. That would make reality worse than a bad acid trip. And here I thought Republicans wanted government out of our lives.

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Gift of Silence

January 3, 2012

A compilation of old-time Christmas gun ads dusts off a cobwebbed memory. I was in the seventh grade. “What do you want for Christmas?” my parents asked. I knew they knew and this was a dance of formalities. So I paused as if deliberating before answering. “A .22 rifle.” They said nothing, and I felt my father’s mind-probe stare. He didn’t like guns, and I managed to bargain down to a BB rifle, a defeat that thrilled me on Christmas morning. That afternoon, Dad took me to the city dump, site of an an informal gun range. As I began setting up tin cans and bottles, I recognized a classmate nearby. His Christmas gift was bigger. To be precise, he shouldered a .20-gauge shotgun that kaboomed every time my rifle pinged. He didn’t smirk, didn’t comment, didn’t acknowledge the obvious: we occupied two different strata — his manly, mine puerile. At school he said nothing, though we both knew the injury he could have inflicted. That may have been the best Christmas gift I ever received. Wherever you are, Karl, thank you.

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JFK, the Moon, and Friends

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November 22, 2011

The biggest news events of my school days were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Neil Armstrong’s hop onto the moon in 1969. Like me, my friends at the time surely remember where we were and what we were doing when tragedy struck 48 years ago today, and when America’s triumph six years later transfixed the world. I can still see my girlfriend sobbing in the hallway at our junior high school when news of Kennedy’s death arrived. Six years later, gathered in front of a TV at a friend’s house, a group of us razzed another friend for drinking too much beer as crackling radio transmissions from the lunar module described a tense descent but safe landing. Someone joked that our tipsy friend was unpatriotic, which hurt his feelings, which set off even more jokes at his expense. I don’t recall whether we appreciated that Armstrong’s first step in moon dust fulfilled the momentous challenge Kennedy had given the nation in 1962: reach the moon by the end of the decade. For certain we had no inkling that while basking in the astronauts’ achievement 238,855 miles from home, America would never again feel as good about itself.

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New Natural History

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November 19, 2011

Our near-downtown neighborhood buzzed all summer about the coyote. Facebook and blogs noted its daily (and nightly) moves with awe and fear. TV stations joined the chorus. It was if an alien had landed in our midst. The sightings advanced closer to our house, and one night my wife and I heard unfamiliar sounds growing louder. We realized it was the coyote yipping its way along our street, announcing its presence in the land of two-legged creatures. A few days later as I drove my son to afternoon swim lessons, the coyote padded slowly across the street a hundred feet in front of us. It appeared neither anxious or hurried.

The coyote’s demeanor left me wondering what the urban world looks like to wild animals. Are the sights and sounds and smells not only foreign but also alluring for reasons we don’t understand? Is the draw simply easier-to-find food and fewer predators or more than that? Consider what must have been coursing through the mind of another coyote discovered lounging on the train serving Portland International Airport.

These increasingly frequent intersections of two worlds, even in metropolises such as Chicago, are explored in “Domesticated,” an evocative series of images that photographer Amy Stein calls “modern dioramas of our new natural history.”

Within these scenes I explore our paradoxical relationship with the ‘wild’ and how our conflicting impulses continue to evolve and alter the behavior of both humans and animals. We at once seek connection with the mystery and freedom of the natural world, yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature.”

Stein’s photo “Howl,” displayed above with her permission, echoes for me long after our neighborhood coyote has departed. The cry in the night could be a lament, a warning, a greeting. Or proud pronouncement “I am home.” The mystery is we’ll never know, and that’s the connection.

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Awaiting Destiny’s Test

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November 12, 2011

For decades a thought arrived often and too pushy to ignore: I had a purpose in life not of my choosing. Without warning I would have an instant to save a stranger’s life. The chance was destiny. Imagined scenarios would flash past, chief among them rescuing a drowning child. Maybe the idea emerged from a childhood immersed in water and lost in the fictional worlds of Tarzan, Tom Swift, and The Hardy Boys.

In adulthood this destiny became an unplayed ace-in-the-hole to erase disappointments and atone for mistakes. Until this week the idea had vanished, a victim of age perhaps. But the shocking news at Penn State left me wondering whether nothing has changed, and I need to be ready. I don’t want to fail like assistant football coach Mike McQueary, who stumbled upon the rape of a prepubescent boy in the locker room showers in 2002. He has been vilified for not stopping the alleged rapist, the team’s former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Instead McQueary testified that he hurried away and contacted his father, who advised him to inform head coach Joe Paterno. McQueary did so but the police were never told, and Sandusky went on to sexually abuse other boys for as many as seven years, according to a grand jury report.

I’ve tried to imagine McQueary, a former Penn State quarterback, looking back at that horrifying moment and reacting as he did. Has a day or even an hour passed in which he hasn’t agonized over a mistake that led to so much suffering? What McQueary failed to do brands him forever and blots out qualities that earned him admiration from players he has coached. For better or worse, we’re all like McQueary was just before he saw a terrible crime in progress, candidates awaiting a test, a test that will change everything.

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Miracle Odds

November 9, 2011

My previous post, inspired by Steve Jobs’ last words, explored what happens when we die. But what about the here and now and the unknowable number of days ahead of us? Jobs himself used the certainty of death as a motivator and guide for how to live every day. In his much-praised commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, the late Apple CEO said:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

I thought of Jobs’ speech today while trying to comprehend calculations that identify the odds we exist and thus have the opportunity to follow our hearts. The odds are so mind-blowingly large, according to the man who did the math, that our existence is a miracle. Dr. Ali Binazir defines a miracle as an event so unlikely that it’s almost impossible. The betting line: 1 in 102,685,000. Our brains aren’t equipped to grasp the magnitude of that number — way too many zeros, so Binazir gives an example to illustrate the miracle odds:

So what’s the probability of your existing? It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number say, 550,343,279,001.

How Binazir calculated the odds is visually explained in an infographic that a science editor says will make you more skeptical that you exist at all. Assuming that we do, how should we respond to our improbability? Binazir says:

Now go forth and feel and act like the miracle that you are.

And what are the odds that we will?

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Death and the Triple Wow

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November 7, 2011

Leave it to Steve Jobs to depart this world with words of wonder. In another context his last utterance would have been overused slang, a reflexive expression lacking meaning. Oh wow. Not so with Jobs as he slipped slowly toward death. Immediately after gazing at his family and then staring past them, he said: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.

His sister, novelist Mona Simpson, related the final words in her moving eulogy, published in the New York Times. Simpson’s use of all caps indicates that Jobs spoke with emphasis and even enthusiasm. She offered no clue about inflection or tone. It’s natural to assume that Jobs, guru of technological artistry and paragon of steroidal perfectionism, was describing with joyful awe what awaits beyond the veil. Mere words might have been his greatest creation of all, delivered without marketing fanfare and free to all. Was the Triple Wow a reassuring wink about the answer to The Big Unanswered Question? Or was Jobs elated not by what he saw ahead but endorphins secreted as people journey toward death, chemically easing their passage? We’ll each know soon enough. In the meantime, let’s go with the wink.


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Stubborn Illusion Of Time

Loving skeletons

November 6, 2011

Two recent stories of love and death feel connected. This is absurd considering that 1,500 years and 5,000 miles separate them. But why let facts get in the way of a feeling, a yearning? Last month an Iowa couple married for 72 years died an hour apart while holding hands. The wife died first but the hospital heart-rate monitor kept showing she had a pulse. The equipment was detecting her husband’s heart through their clasped hands. Then came news last week of an archeological find in Italy: two skeletons buried in the 5th or 6th centuries while holding hands. How can there be a connection beyond hands held and the bond of enduring love they signify?

The stories reminded me of a column, “Einstein’s God” that suggests the possibility of something I want to believe: the two couples are one in the same. When Albert Einstein learned of the death of a physicist friend, he wrote to the friend’s family:

He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”

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Vicarious No More

November 4, 2011

When I live vicariously through someone, it usually involves imagining a pleasurable or adventurous event. Now I’m experiencing the opposite, imagining the terror of friends waking at night in their burning house. That’s terrifying enough, but add to the plot a baby and arson. The couple and their five-month-old son, asleep on the top floor, might have never awoken. The mother, a light sleeper, smelled smoke about 3:30 a.m. She thought she hadn’t turned off the stove. They found the first floor filled with smoke. Someone had ignited the exterior basement door, and the flames had burned through the door and were spreading.

Mom, dad, and son escaped unharmed but I insist on seeing tragic endings. Them trapped and overcome by smoke. Them crashing through their bedroom window and falling into the night. My mind segues to same situation but different setting: my home, my family.

Our friends have installed six smoke detectors. I’ve checked ours. The arsonist is still on the loose. The here and now is not vicarious.

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Futures Never Seen

Daytona Beach, 1904

October 30, 2011

Now this is old Florida: Daytona Beach, 1904. More than six decades later, Daytona occasionally beckoned me, especially during Spring Break, a rockin’ happening then but sedate compared to today’s debauched version. The Daytona Beach of my memory, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was overcrowded, the sands jammed with cars, and Highway A1A just beyond the dunes trampled with the schlocky glitz so oddly alluring to tourists. My high school friends and I were more drawn to the reserved and scenic New Smyrna Beach, where we ended up more weekends than not.

Who among the crowd pictured above (and much larger here) could have imagined what the seashore on which they stroll would become? Maybe I’m drawn to photographs like this because they so starkly illuminate the futures we can never behold.


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Numbered, I Am

October 27, 2011


“I am not a number, I am a free man!” That memorable line by actor Patrick McGoohan is from the 1960s TV series The Prisoner, which riveted me years later. I remembered the line today when learning that I have a number. There’s nothing official or sinister about my number, 2,772,772,874, unlike that of McGoohan’s character, known only as Number 6. According to the United Nations Population Fund, I became the 2,772,772,874th person on Earth when I was born. While far from precise, the number — via this calculator — is a point of reference. With world population only a few days from topping 7 billion, I can now see the tiny speck that I am on the timeline of human history, a history in which nearly 76 billion people preceded me.


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Lost Words, Lost Beauty

October 23, 2011

Most English words we take for granted. Never think about them. They mean what they mean and ably serve their function. Then there are the smattering of words we love not because of their meaning but their sound. Actually more than sound: the pleasurable feel of speaking them. Mine include serendipity, euphoria, and melancholy. But what words would we love to hear and say if only we knew them? I’m not talking about any in the vast pool of 171,476 in current use and listed with full meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary. Or even any among the OEA‘s 47,156 obsolete words.

There are the smattering of words we love not because of their meaning but their sound.

In classic serendipity while browsing Futility Closet, I stumbled upon an obsolete word not even in the OED, a word that immediately appealed to me because it describes something so deserving of its own word. But what seemed like the most logical way to pronounce kumatage — phonetically gives it no aural or oral appeal. After much searching, I found the correct pronunciation courtesy of Endangered Words: A Collection of Rare Gems for Book Lovers by Simon Hertnon. Koo-mah-TAHZH is rhythmic, exotic, and beautiful. How fitting given the meaning. According to The New American Practical Navigator, published in 1837, a kumatage is:

A bright appearance in the horizon, under the sun or moon, arising from the reflected light of those bodies from the small rippling waves on the surface of the water.

Why the word faded away into obsolescence is a mystery. If another word replaced kumatage, I can’t find it. And the fate of kumatage makes me wonder: is there a word for things that deserve a word but don’t have one?

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An Owl That’s Me

October 21, 2011

Reincarnation as this owl — that’s what I want. Not merely to flaunt my aerial adroitness, fierce gaze, and stunning plumage. I like the idea of staying up all night and hooting from trees.

I found the video here via a journalist whose work I admire. But James Fallow‘s likening of owls to cats with wings borders on a slur, however unintended.

My closest encounter with an owl of such regal bearing came several years ago just after dusk. I stepped outside onto the back deck overlooking our small goldfish pond and there it was six feet away. More than a foot tall, the owl was perched atop the back of a tall aluminum chair. We stared at each other longer than I expected, maybe a minute, no sign of fear in its unblinking eyes. As if finally bored with our encounter, the owl slowly unfurled its wings. Next came two sounds: the ting of talons clicking against metal, then a whispered whoosh as the owl lifted off into the night.

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