personal, ruminations

On Dog Poop, Again

memespringDog Poop in Water

About seven months ago–wow, has it really been that long?–I instructed:

So next time you’re walking your dog, and someone asks you if you’re going to pick that up, do the right thing. Say yes and walk away. Leave the excrement where it falls.

And even when I wrote that, I wasn’t nearly so certain as it sounds. I expect I was mostly just excusing the fact that I didn’t pick up dog poop at the time.

Soon after that I had a change of heart. Though it would be useful to have a nice transformational moment when I realized how foolish my old logic had been–how I accidentally stumbled into a large pile of dog feces while walking in shiny new shoes–there is not one.

The simple reality is that at the time I was proudly declaring that one shouldn’t pick up dog poop, I was really just scared of the stuff. And reasonably so. Excrement of all kinds carries more bacteria than just about anything else we regularly encounter. And it’s certainly the most unsafe thing our bodies–and dog’s bodies–regularly expel.

But, I realized one day, it’s safer for everyone if I pick that stuff up with a layer of plastic between me and it, and then wash my hand before it goes anywhere near my mouth. It’s safer there than on a third grader’s shoe. Or a 67 year old’s. Safer too than having a mistaken toddler play with it. Safer than it having it leach into the water supply–an odd claim I’d never heard until I saw the above picture.

I still have reservations about the whole thing. Mostly it’s this: I’m sealing biodegradable waste inside a painfully-slow-to-erode plastic bag, where it will take up landfill space for hundreds of years. Now the plastic bag may have well ended up in the landfill anyway, but the poop could be, as I suggested last time, reasonably good fertilizer.

Were there to be a reason to leave those feces where they fall, that would certainly be it. But forced to choose, as a dog-walker regularly is, between leaving it and sealing it, I’ll now choose sealing nine times out of ten. (And that tenth time is probably hidden in high grass where it’s rather unlikely that anyone will walk within the next three months.)

fiction, personal

My Problem with Fiction

RparleNew Fiction

Everywhere I see people who don’t understand how the world works. This includes, but is hardly limited to, when I’m standing in front of the mirror.

To my limited understanding, the world is wonderfully complex place full of wonderfully interesting people doing their absolute best to live the most useful lives they can. And I don’t understand even half of what happens out there.

And I don’t much see how fiction helps me or anyone else to better understand anything.

In that paragraph is the fundamental hangup I seem to have with fiction. It’s fictional. There’s a tautology if ever one existed.

I’m certainly no lover of literature, so perhaps that’s the simple nature of this beast. After all, I’ve also never been much a fan of any form of art.

Paintings. Drawings. Oils. Giant pieces of abstraction. It all seems rather dead to me.

If we were to accept the fairly reasonable, if not necessarily true, premise that art is fundamentally a window into the artist’s mind, then I suppose my fundamental dissatisfaction with fiction is that the people who write it don’t seem terribly interesting to me. They’re mostly–at least of the authors I frequently hear of–white, middle-aged, and male. These men are like me, or like what I’m going to be. I’d much rather have insight into the mind of a Russian housewife or a Congolese general than into the mind of a middle-aged white American.

But I like to read journalism. I usually struggle to read fiction. In some way, I would argue that even when the two are written by the same person, the first explores others, while the second explores nothing more than the self.

I’m certainly devaluing fiction. It’s an exceptionally useful tool to elaborate your personal understanding of the world. And when you understand something about the world differently than most others, that’s a tremendously valuable gift you give. Your fiction is then a way for people to learn about the world.

So too is it tremendously useful if you lived quite long ago. Roman fiction is often seen as more useful for understanding the world of the empire than are the histories made by friends of the emperors.

But most fiction I see, and most fiction I see people read, is dull. It’s John Grisham. It’s Tom Clancy. It’s Danielle Steele. And I can’t seem to understand the value in that. And I wonder: Am I the only one?

To be fair, I don’t mind watching a good fictional movie. And part of my dissatisfaction with fiction in print is probably that I read slowly. Or not at all. But those aren’t the only reasons.

I feel like most fiction is situated so close to the world I know that I won’t shun it as unknowable. It’s a drama about twenty-something Americans that I’m expected read because I’m a twenty-something American. And something about that just rubs me wrong.


On Break until 2008

As the curious will probably have guessed by now, I’m taking a break until January 7th. It’s a Monday, the one after New Year’s Eve.

I was rather negligent in announcing this. For that I apologize. And as my penance, I promise that at least one more thing will be posted between now and the seventh.

I hope everyone had a happy Tuesday (and Tuesday eve). Enjoy next Tuesday (and Tuesday eve) as well.

metablogging, personal, ruminations

But What Is a Blog? & My Answer

Source: topgoldA Blog is a place…

Aside from having been described by Jerry Seinfeld as a terribly ugly word (which it is), “blog” is a hard concept to pin down. Of course the word’s evolution from the original meaning of “web log” would suggest that they’re necessarily linear expressions of a set of idea, thoughts, and goals. A diary almost. But I’d hope that this “blog” doesn’t feel like a diary, or have substance very similar a teenager’s secret journal.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difference between a “writer” and a “blogger” but came to little more than my frustration with, and inability to parse, the distinction. I wrote a few months ago about the different types of blogs I see on the internet. But neither of those seemed to answer the question of “what is a blog?” and more specifically “what is a blog to me?”

I think the easiest analogy–and it’s not really a surprising one–is that like a “book” or a “magazine,” it really varies. Like both of those forms, there’s a certain idea that people usually associate with the word “blog.” Where for books they probably tend to think of a novel, or for magazines, a news weekly (about politics, “news,” celebrities, what have you), with a blog the default assumption is roughly that it is a place for a person to write irrelevant blather to make themselves feel important.

But a “book” also includes the notions of long non-fiction, short fiction with illustrations (picture books!), short story collections, or diatribes about politics, gods, or “man.” So too can a magazine be a heterodox collection of fiction, nonfiction, short bits and long blather. It can be exceptionally experimental or staid and boring. It can be exceptionally timely or exceptionally timeless.

Of those two, my description of a “magazine” is closer to my understanding of what a blog is. But neither fits exactly. The point is perhaps as simple as this: a blog, like a book or magazine, is what it’s made into.

This is no revelations, even to me, but for some reason I can and frequently do lose sight of it’s truth. Too much time online regularly convinces me that all blogs (mine included) are the same. That it’s all inane blather that does little more than serve to create circles of people patting each other on the back and never realizing that they’re producing drivel.

Nor does it help that finding blogs I like which update regularly often feels impossible. Much of what passes for political discussion in the blogosphere feels like arguments about inane topics that no one but the most nerdy cares about (see: Kos, Daily). Most of what passes for discussions about life is journaling about the events of your day (see: dooce). When what I want–as Leslie said accurately–is “a new breed of philosopher” (see: my blogroll?).

The difficulty faced in finding what I want in the “blogosphere” is enough to make me despair and desire to run away from the medium. But I’m also pretty certain that flight and despair are choices built for fools.

The type of blog I’m making here is the kind of blog I’d like to read. Even if they sometimes feel few and far between–among a vast wasteland of seething and wasteful punditry, savaging of celebrities, and “get rich from blogging” sites–I persist. If only because of my own stubborn and insolent insistence that what I’m looking for, what I’m making, is worthwhile.

Perhaps I’m a quixotic fool. The artist who dies destitute and sad. Whose brilliance–whether real or imagined–is discovered only after death. Or not at all.

Whatever the reality, I must again thank those who read this. Whatever it is or is not.

personal, ruminations

The Joys of Life, the Moon, and Reading

Source: eye of einsteinMoon Sliver

Last Wednesday evening, as I got up from the computer, I looked out the window. There in the sky, fragile and held aloft by what seemed to be nothing was a sliver of the moon. The horizon I could see over the nearby houses was an enchanting shade of mild orange, which melted into a thin rainbow of yellow and green under a sky of beautifully darkening blue.

To improve the image, the trees, long since little more than needle-like lines in the sky, pointed up everywhere. And below, a thick layer of recently fallen snow made the evergreens look like the quintessence of winter.

Were I feeling vulnerable, I though, I might just have to shed a tear or two at this sight. A sight made all the more valuable because of all the times I know I’ve forgotten to look out the window and say “My God, it’s grand to be alive.”

It’s exceptionally easy to forget what a wonder life is, as we bustle from meetings to errands to television and bed. And it’s when we lose sight of these sights, that thin sliver of a moon held aloft over a perfectly darkening horizon, that we begin to stress about things unworthy of our care.

Getting a raise, or a Christmas bonus, are perhaps not trivial concerns. Making certain you’ve got a shelter for warmth, and food and water to keep you alive certainly are not. But when I stood there and looked at the moon, not a single thing in the world seemed to matter much at all.

Were I to have died, right then, right there, I would have been satisfied. Sure I haven’t accomplished all I’d like. I’m not confident that the world’s a better place than it would have been without me. But to know I got to fully enjoy that view of the moon over my horizon when no one else did was enough. And that can alway be enough.

It’s that feeling, that deep awareness of the importance of that moon over that horizon, that has inspired my undying love for both The Little Prince and the poems of William Stafford. Like no other writers, Saint Exupéry and Stafford seem aware of the amazing power that’s contained in watching the last flickering momemts of the sunset, as the thin moons floats aloft exactly where you want it to be.

Sharing that feeling of love and peace communicated by those men is perhaps the highest ambition of this man.

metablogging, personal

State of the Blog, December 2007

If you’ve ever come to the site before, you’ll probably notice that it looks different. To lessen the shock, here’s an introduction to what’s changed and is new. (Actually, those two sentences are no more than a thin facade to excuse me from feeling bad that this is an otherwise meaningless and self-indulgent post.)

In any case, some things have changed. You’ve probably noticed that font is both bigger and serifed (those little curvy bits). I think both changes make make the text easier and more pleasant to read. The other immediately-noticeable change is the absence of a sidebar. This was done because, perhaps selfishly, I wanted people to read what I’m writing and not be distracted by all the pretty links in the sidebar. Lest you fear that those links are gone for good, the important ones are still available at the bottom of every page.

The more substantial changes are actually the “Archives” and “About” pages. The About page is a combination of the old “About me” and “About this Blog” pages, with a new section that tells you about how Frozen Toothpaste is produced (sorry, but no toothpaste factories or dry ice are involved).

The Archives pages is very much improved. Instead of what was essentially a massive list of everything I’ve written, there’s a recommendation section, as well as a fun-to-play-with tag cloud. Both of those section will change as new content is added, and as I do a better job making sure all the old content is correctly filed and profiled.

As to new content, little will change. The schedule I described the last time I was self-indulgent enough to write a post like this is working pretty well for me. It keeps the content rather varied, and also helps me fight against the seemingly-inevitable problem of having nothing to write (though it’s FAR from eliminated).

And as feel honor-bound to do every time I write something exceptionally self-indulgent, I must finally say this: Thanks for reading.

personal, review

Review: A Week of Colorado Weather

Outside my window, the rarely-trafficked street is still white, only the manhole cover that managed to melt through gives a hint that there’s anything not white under there. The gray sidewalks–which must be shoveled both as a courtesy to fellow pedestrians and out of fear for the law–form a coherent border between the white over grass and the white over blacktop.

It snowed, off and on, for three consecutive days. The total accumulation on grass is almost certainly less than six inches–a somewhat high but not unexpected total for the areas of Colorado where people live. Many non-locals mistake Colorado’s ski areas for the “front range” where the vast majority of it’s people live. They’re surprised by the news that this snow will likely have vanished without a trace by next Monday.

But if Colorado’s weather is nothing else, it’s variable. There’s a running joke–however unfunny–among locals that Colorado’s the only place you’ll need hat and gloves in the morning, shorts at lunch, and a rain slicker by dinner. Though such a day has never occurred in my memory, this week does show the origins of the lie.

Six days ago, I stepped outside to walk the dog. I was expecting weather as it had been–about 45 and a tad too windy–instead my first thought was “this is awfully nice weather for October,”–65, sunny, only a slight breeze. Upon realizing that we’d recently entered the month of December, I was stunned and ecstatic with my good fortune.

By that evening, with the weathermen telling us that snow would soon fall, there was little surprise. This was Colorado, after all, and the weather had changed dramatically from my shorts-envying noon-time walk. It was again around 40 and windy, as sure a sign as any that the weathermen we’re completely wrong.

Nonetheless, I was modestly shocked waking to a light dusting of snow last Thursday. Such weather had certainly been predicted, but Colorado’s meteorologists are fond of saying that their’s is a very difficult job.

Today, the view outside of my window could be called–a little generously–a winter wonderland. We’ve got the extra-brightness engendered by snow that skiers know so well. Last Monday, I probably would have seen a cool dry Colorado winter, a little dispassionate gray in the sky. And I’m happy to report that I don’t have any idea what next Monday will bring.

personal, ruminations, world

The Mandarins

A few days ago I created a new text document on my desktop–the way I almost always jot down notes when I’m at the computer–and titled it “the mandarins” and put this inside:

I used to believe that the world was controlled by extraordinary individuals who were somehow different than people like me. I’ve come to realize that the world is filled with extraordinary individuals like me and run by no one.

As with all seemingly-profound insights I have, I quickly realized its flaws. The most glaring to me is how hollow this sentiment is in an authoritarian state. Perhaps those leading a state, Burma for example, are no more exceptional than their citizens but they are clearly and unquestionably running things.

The same can be asserted, to varying degrees, in all countries which currently exist. Perhaps George Bush doesn’t run the world, but it’s hard to deny that he could make life profoundly uncomfortable for almost anyone anywhere in the world should he be so compelled.

Though the idea fails to be easily reconciled to political reality, I don’t really think it was intended as a treatise on modern political realities. Much more so it was a way I viewed the world and average people (read: those that aren’t able to readily command large militaries).

Part of this is likely an outgrowth of the cultural zeitgeist. Like never before, previously average people can become knowledgeable, credible, and important experts on any topic. Perez Hilton, even if his expertise is incredibly trivial, does represent something of new paradigm. So does Wikipedia.

I also think it’s true that that text document represents a second end of parental infallibility. It’s a well-known and widely-understood stage of development: the revelation that your parents don’t know everything, can’t fix everything. This realization is similar. It’s the realization the much revered purveyors of culture and knowledge aren’t infallible and impossibly knowledgeable. They regularly make errors just like everyone else.

In this way, the document perhaps serves as visceral proof of my naivete. I’m okay with that possibility. I’ve known academically for some time that presidents can and frequently do make mistakes. So do CEOs, journalists, and academics. But the intellectual understanding of a fact is very different from active awareness of it.

Mostly I think the document was feeble attempt to convey one of my strongest conviction–which is perhaps both naive and mundane–that we’re all essentially the same. For a while this was my magic bullet, perhaps it still is. Somehow I was (and still am) convinced that if every person in the world understood this fact–viscerally not intellectually–we’d all live much better lives.

Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m naive to think that we’re really all the same. Maybe it’s naive to think that everyone in the world could ever come to that realization. But as I said yesterday, naive and hopeless causes are my favorite kind.

big ideas, fiction, personal, world

The Myth of the Magic Bullet

I’ve long been seeking one thing–a song, a poem, a quotation, even a book–that once found will magically save all people–save them from their greed, their fear, and their unnecessary antipathy for one another.

One day I met my anti-prophet, who told me this:

I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, and most certainly won’t. It hasn’t been made, it won’t be made, it can’t be made. Perhaps, having made these proclamations, it is incumbent upon me, the prophet, to provide good reason that such a claim is true.

Don’t forget that people still hate, kill, steal, and rape–literally and figuratively–other people. If a peaceful and harmonious world hasn’t arisen in the 5000 years of Abrahamic religion, in the 5000 years of Buddhist tradition, in the 2000 years of Christian practice, and the 1300 year since the death of Muhammad, religion certainly is not the magic bullet. Pogroms, crusades, jihads, and all stripes of fundamentalism show viscerally that religions are both the cause of and reason for a great deal of strife.

The secular heritage of science and the academy have always offered some refuge for those distrustful of religious strife. But it’s also hard to deny that some of the most intelligent people in this world are also the most driven to do things that are, at best, morally abhorrent. Hitler was no academic slouch–even if he was a poor writer–nor were the scores of scientist, Nazi and otherwise, who advocated for the eugenics-based policies of population control that only Hitler was ever powerful and audacious enough to carry to its deeply unsettling climax.

The public sphere–typified by democratic politics in most countries of the world–is hardly much in the way of grace giving. Surely democracy is a good form of government and when exercised in open societies it’s the very articulation of the desires of a society’s public sphere. But you don’t have to look far to see that politics, even the most open and democratic, leads to no small measure of strife and systematic unrest, both in its home and elsewhere.

But surely, you’re saying, the most grievous failures of monolithic institutions aren’t sufficient to mean that there can be no magic bullet. After all, most of the best ideas come from hermits, writers, and philosophers divorced from religion, the academy, and the public sphere. You are not wrong in think that, but your missing a crucial point. Those divorced from religion, the academy, or politics lack a crucial element in the magic bullet equation–a gun. Without a pulpit, conference stage, or spaker’s podium from which to spread their transformative message, they’re effectively impotent. Were they to ever create a bullet, or even some insight into how to make it, they would lack a mouthpiece through which to tell the good word.

There can be no change, for the world is lead by dreadfully dull paper-pushers whose very survival depends on sustaining the status quo. They’re both powerful and unwilling to accept even the smallest change. Their power disempowers the rest of us, who can aspire to no better than a peaceful life for ourselves. We can’t give others such a life, we just have to do our best to wrest one for ourselves.

Having listened to the anti-prophet, I wasn’t sure what to think. Part of me wanted to surrender immediately. To give in, say he was right all along and that I was a fool to hope for something different.

Part of me wanted to condemn him as a hopeless cynic. A man sure of nothing but the impossibility of anything worth doing. He was, after all, oversimplifying. Certainly the world hadn’t changed as much as I’d like over my lifetime, but some steps had been made. Poverty and hunger are less rampant than they were 20, 200, or 2000 years ago, and that’s certainly a change.

He did make me realize that I would probably never find a magic bullet. That no single thing is likely to suddenly make all citizens of the world come to their senses and stop hurting one another. He strengthened in my mind the resolve that change is always and necessarily gradual, but it’s absolutely not impossible.

The anti-prophet wasn’t completely wrong, but for now my optimism has won out. I hope it’ll manage to holdout for 5, 15, or 50 more years. But in my weaker moments I can’t help feeling that it’s easier to give in and give up than to hold out hope.

american society, personal

Happy Thursday!

I’d planned on writing something today, but when, on rising, I was greeted by four inches of accumulated snow my resolve to do so quickly cracked and eventually crumbled. Already somewhat interested in making Thanksgiving (it’s tomorrow in United States) an extended break, I was unable to do any serious thinking.

So, Americans (and perhaps non-Americans too) enjoy tomorrow. I think it’s just fabulous that we in this country have compartmentalized one of most important sentiments in the world to fit onto a single calendar day on which we worry about little other than food and professional football. I consider it a blessing that on the day we named for gratitude our central societal concerns have become gluttony and sloth. This Thursday is truly a great day to be an American.