108. Personal belongings

The slow process of shedding skin. Not the sort that hides my skeleton, but the sort that defines me in another way. My stuff. My acquisitions. From the $150 dollar mattress I bought last year to the perfectly good chair I snagged from beside the dumpster behind my apartment building, mostly everything has to be gone.

“Has to” is an interesting way to put it, but that’s what it feels like. Sure there’s plenty of things I possess with cherished connections to my past… trinkets, books, pieces of art. I can’t even get rid of a sweatshirt I never wear because at one point it was my favorite article of clothing I’d ever owned. There are plenty of things I’ve removed from the “Everything Must Go” liquidation, but when I look around, I see my things as nothing more than that: things. And I’m not bringing many things with me when I leave, so the non-valued personal belongings have to be gone.

It is quite the sensation to whittle away at your personal belongings. It is incredibly relieving to put more than half of your wardrobe into bags for donation, to just look at the things you possess with real, sensible honesty. Do I need this? Do I wear this? Have I even touched this item in the last six months? Mostly, I know which things I’m absolutely not going to need in the next four months, and also what I definitely won’t be using in a wet, humid, hot-as-hell tropical climate.

We don’t get to do this very often. Usually we have our things and that’s that. It takes a dramatic life move to compel us to get rid of a few things. Some of the simplest of us still live very cluttered lives, and this isn’t including the bills we pay to afford these cluttering devices. I mean, this is just what happens. Sit still for too long and moss is sure to grow.

There is more to shed. There are the things I can’t get rid of.

It is hard to suggest for people to rid themselves of their personal belongings for no good reason. It is best instead to express how the act of getting rid of things you don’t honestly need or use is an empowering choice to make. Plus you can make a small profit.

Know when you’re not going to miss something, let it go.

When you don’t need much, you spend less, and somehow it feels like you have more. I am aiming now for the simplest life I can get. I want all my things to fit into a backpack.

After all, the important stuff is shelter, food, water, air, and companionship. You can’t get that from an oak desk, or a stack of videogames, or extra pillows. We spend so much on things that do nothing for our well-being. We collect nonessentials compulsively. It is simply the way of the world, for the most part. We’re all hoarders to some degree. We take the truly important stuff for granted, measuring our lives not by how fresh the air is that we breathe, or how strong our relationships are, but with trophies of social value, like premium cable, ten thousand dollar weddings, and sports cars.

I’m not sure what a life without personal belongings feels like. At a certain point, I’m going to be rendered homeless. I will have my backpack and the clothes on my person, nothing more. I imagine I will feel extremely light. I will have so little to ground me in any place, and no need to collect things, moving in a consistent state of appreciating what’s around me. It’s not for everyone, to go to this extreme, but I do suggest taking a good hard look at the things you own and wonder why you own them.

Are you using it?

Do you care about it?

Then shed it. It’s weighing you down.

 

107. Ego

The ego is basically your middle man between the id and the super-ego, meaning it holds the ability to rationalize between internal instinct and external influence. The ego is your concept of reality.

Another spin on the word is to see ego as one’s perception of self. Your ego is an instinctive concept of who you are, a reflection you imagine when you’re not near a mirror. It’s who you think you are. And this is all the ego knows.

The ego is, in this definition, a representation of how selfish you are. It’s the definition I became accustomed to, having heard the libel about egoists, being egotistical, having a big ego, having a wounded ego, etc. The egoist wants to be right, wants to win, wants to tell people about it, wants to spread the news across the ocean of social media, and wants to get everything they want all the time every day.

The egoist is their ego, or they’ve at least given up the driver’s seat.

It’s often considered a thing, like a heart or a white blood cell or a rib. This ego is within us, in our minds, perhaps, just pulling our puppet strings.

I could’ve sworn I didn’t really have one, and if I did, because Freud said I did, it was not one I fed, monitored, considered, or was aware of. Sure it felt good to be appreciated or complimented, and yeah it felt bad when people accused me of things I didn’t do or challenged my character, but I’d grown deft at shrugging things off.

I always felt so calm. So collected. I never felt selfish. I never felt like I needed praise or wanted attention. I just existed and was happy enough with that, like a koi fish. Over time, I simply believed that the ego didn’t exist for everyone. Some of us were good as is.

Nope. The ego exists.

Even the ego in the deepest hibernation in the deepest cave can be poked with a long enough stick, and those deep sleepers usually have the deepest roar.

Trust me. As someone who literally thought they were immune to intense emotional experiences, this experience, which I call an ego-attack, proves to me that the ego is a crucial, if terribly unpredictable, part of every one of us.

An ego-attack, nearly identical in mental catastrophe as a bad shroom-trip, is a situation where one (more specifically, one’s ego) feels completely cornered and targeted by the universe entirely, as if it were all about them, all for them, all against them.

Caused, for example, by a broken heart, the death of a relative, a lost job, or any number of traumatic moments that really shake you up, loosen those emotions, and stir awake the ego that was sleeping so soundly just a moment ago…

The first thing it does is blame everyone else.

It is the most selfish I’ve ever felt. The most derailed I’ve ever been. It felt totally out of my control. It felt like my skeleton was trying to break out of my skin, the ego wanting to burst free and fight the world. Trapped, it threw a tantrum in my temporal lobes and sent regular pain missiles through my heart, stomach, and shoulders.

I’m not sure if this violent metaphor relates to everyone who encounters their ego for the first time. Perhaps it depends on the circumstances. In my case, my ego received a heavy dosage of jealousy and heartache, combined with an immediate distaste for my work environment, resulting in a befuddled, misguided ego that didn’t know what else to do but garner and harbor massive amounts of disdain.

What I learned is that, when on the attack, the ego doesn’t  really care about your work performance. The ego doesn’t really care about eating well. Doesn’t care about friendships. Doesn’t care, doesn’t care, doesn’t care. What it cares about is winning.

That’s all. It wants that chalk mark under the W column, and nothing else, because winning is setting things back to how they were, or at the very least, forcing some kind of ramshackle imitation of normalcy to appease itself for the meantime.

I was terrified by this instinctual urge boiling out of me.

My initial reaction was to run. To take my awakened ego and hide it from everyone, because it had transformed me. It took over. Like a toothache or a stomach cramp, it boldly claimed ownership over my every waking thought. The crazy thing about it is how unnatural my behavior felt, yet how familiar that ego was, this cracked-mirror reflection of myself. Another part of me. Someone I hadn’t seen before, but knew all along.

I wanted to run. Quit. Close up. Shut down.

I’m not a mean person. I never will be. I’m not selfish, and I steer clear of those who are. I’m a genuinely happy guy. But the ego doesn’t care about “genuinely happy guy.”

The ego did what it thought it had to, and I’m glad I managed to get control of it again when I did, because it was really starting to bum me out. I like to laugh and goof off and be carefree. The ego took everything too seriously. The ego was basically the star of its own soap opera that no one watched.

What I learned from all of this, however, is that the ego is a part of me that I’ve neglected. As obnoxious and ridiculous as my emotional core has been behaving under leadership of the ego, it was a shock to the system that I think I needed. A lot of ideas were reaffirmed, a lot of life choices were given extra value, and in the end, the ego-attack proved useful, if not annoying and embarrassing as all hell.

I mean, even though I didn’t care much for the guy I became when the ego took over, he had some good points. 

I think the ego is always present, paying attention to your life and the things around you, this little concept of reality that you’ve come up with in your head. Think of your ego as one of those girls in the pool who predicted crimes in Minority Report, all chill until something goes down (or will go down, in some cases).

The moment the ego feels threatened, it will demand answers and retribution from those who awakened it. On the other hand, if the ego is pleasured by a compliment or good fortune, it can have a more outwardly positive effect, resulting in euphoria and confidence. Basically, the ego is either going to wake up wanting vengeance or a high-five.

I’m not sure how we can get to know our egos better. They are quiet operators, way more influential than you could imagine. Already, mine has returned to its depths like some electric eel that ran out of juice, heading home to recharge. At least now I know what to expect should I ever have another ego-attack in the future, and maybe I’ll be able to sit down for a moment with my ego over a cup of decaf coffee and find out what makes it do the things it does.

That would be the greatest knowledge of all, to not make sense of the world, but to make sense of why we care so much about keeping it all designed to our liking.

106. Us, the busy universe

There’s always something. Always a need or an unfilled want. Always. You can’t escape it. We have stuff that we have to take care of constantly and forever. Time doesn’t stop for anyone or anything. Rich or poor, fat or thin, human is human, and part of being human is being busy, because everything is busy all the time.

Sometimes it blows my mind how occupied we have to be. Even when we stand still, we’re busy little machines. Sometimes I wish I could just pause it all and let the moment last a little longer, a purely stationary sensation. I’d like to actually do nothing for a while.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the sense of accomplishment as much as the next guy. It feels good to finish things. It feels good to work for something. But I don’t remember signing up for a life of work.

I don’t want to sound lazy. To be honest, none of us are lazy. How can we be? Right now we’re hurtling through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. We’re busy even if we’re just sitting down reading text off a computer screen. You think it’s easy to be a biological machine? We’re full of moving parts, and those parts need maintenance.

We have to take care of our bodies. We’re thrust into this world, given all the possibility for greatness, but required to monitor and care for our physical selves. That said, we ARE our bodies, not simply conductors, not puppeteers pulling strings. Part of life is being aware of your body and its process of birth, growth, and death. This thing doesn’t just drive itself.

And so I eat. I sleep. I don’t have a car or bike so I walk a lot. I look both ways before jaywalking. I have good hygiene habits, mostly. For this I still suffer from allergies and bad teeth. I have to tend to those concerns. We all do. The body does not sit idly even if we do. I have to shave. I have to suffer headaches. I have to stay hydrated. I’ll have to get health insurance, eventually. We’re machines from the get-go and all machines need constant maintenance, even the most well-oiled machines among us.

I’m not complaining. Get that thought out of your head right now. I love being alive. As Carl Sagan would put it, I’ve “humaned” from the universe and to the universe I give my greatest gratitude. Life is beautiful. It’s just… Mysteriously calculated.

Maybe this is a bit extreme, but imagine a world where everything was just fine how it was now. Imagine if nature in all its infinite wisdom came to the realization that everything was great. Why expand any further? Are we part of a giant masterpiece awaiting a final stroke of the paintbrush? Is there ever a final stroke? Like Valéry said, is the poem ever truly finished? At what point should we be content and take a break?

Thing is, I don’t think it can stop. There would be no NOW without an overarching cycle of Start and Finish. Even that idea of “Finish” is an illusion. Heck, even “Start” is an illusion. Things simply ARE, no matter what form they take. We imagine we are unique because we teach ourselves that this is true but when boiled down to the basics, we’re the same stuff as all stuff, we never “started,” we just continued from where we were to now in a different way, and there is no “finish line,” just another way of being the universe.

The universe cannot stand still because it knows nothing else. Everything is a circle, a cycle, a revolution, an orbit, a whirlpool. Everything is made so that it can spin apart and be made again. If we stopped things now, there’d never be anything new, and I think the universe likes to make new things.

I guess what I’m most baffled about is how puzzling it all is. There are no answers. No one knows what happens after we die. No one knows why the universe exists. No one will ever know. And this mystery is true about everything, not just us. I’m talking about the mystery of hummingbirds and galaxies. Are we just a swirling mass of recyclable space dust? Are we cogs in an even greater machine? Are we anything at all?

We don’t know.

But we act like we do. We act like there’s an answer waiting. The white light at the end of the tunnel. That’s good and all, but forgive me if it defies my personal logic that I have to wait until I’ve croaked to find out what it was all about. In acting like there’s an answer waiting, we have given in to the machinery metaphor. We are part of a greater plan. We are on a path. We are born this way.

We often compare ourselves to rats who expect cheese at the end of the maze. And yeah, I recognize that not everyone agrees with the rat idea. Rats are gross. I agree. But the cheese part is accurate. We have this great idea about what this cheese is. Even the most atheist of the rats sees the end of the maze, even if there’s no cheese there, there’s still a conclusion. For me, that’s not enough.

Maybe I’ve been listening to a little too much Carl Sagan lately, but that all feels so strange to me. We’ve never been separate enough from the universe to expect something next. What comes next is we keep being what we’ve always been, just through a different lens. We are the universe. We are a way for the universe to understand itself, like a mirror, and when we move on from this biological form, perhaps we’ll return as another mirror on another planet, or maybe we’ll just become the planet.

I think that’s kind of beautiful. Reminds me that our time as humans is temporary, but our role as the universe could be forever.

How it came that we personified that concept by anthropomorphizing an ethereal creator in charge of everything is a little silly. I like the idea. I mean, it still fits. God is the Universe, the Universe is God. Tomato, Tomatoh.

How we let religion turn into violence is baffling, a very human thing to do. I do not want to be associated with a religion that has killed anyone, and this is why I feel more connected to the universe I literally came from, not the creative impulse of an omnipresent being. We made religion then let religion turn us against each other. There is death in the universe, as well, but when a star dies it’s not because the star believed in a different universe. It’s because it was time for the star’s energy to become something else. When I die, I don’t want it to be because (or for) my belief. I want it to just be another moment in an infinite string of moments of being a small piece of my bigger self, the Universe.

Anyway, it seems like the only seed of truth that’s permeated the collective chaos that is our religious disagreement is to love and live true.

Love and live true. Yet, we complicate things.

We complicate humankind when there’s already so many other things to take care of first, not just our biological bodies but the fallout of forming society. From birth defects to taking care of our ill to feeding the hungry to stopping violence due to inequality. Major problems. As humans, we’re pretty screwed up.

You don’t see a herd of lions forming a jury to convict someone of vehicular lionslaughter.

Society is such a fascinatingly wonderful and equally terrible idea. It’s this partially agreed-upon role-playing experiment that persists on a daily basis by sheer luck alone. I know that’s edging away from what Carl Sagan would say about everything being stupid chance, but I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s absolutely no need for people to have conflict, yet we never seem to learn. We’re basically the universe having a temper tantrum with a part of itself it’s not very fond of. We’re the acne of the universe and we’re being popped like zits.

We can do better. We don’t have to be a blemish.

I think we’re stressed out. I think we’re taking ourselves too seriously. We’re complex enough without all this additional weight on our shoulders. We’re lucky. We got the cool brains of the animal kingdom and we’ve built rockets and vaccines and hot water faucets. We have kick-ass language skills. We’re goddamn awesome with these brains. And they take care of a lot of stuff for us without us even thinking about it. We eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired, but for the most part our brains have things under control. We forget that. We treat ourselves like we’re vessels carrying souls, not bodies being bodies. Imagine living internally rather than externally. Try to think with your whole body, not just your brain. It’s hard to do. We’ve removed ourselves from our bodies, removing ourselves from the universe itself (or at least attempting to), and it’s stressful to go it on your own, isn’t it? Here we are, humans, floating alone in the river of time. Rather than being part of the shore, we invent a figure to stand on the shore and judge us from afar. Why add that burden to an already skewed sense of reality?

I’m stressed out just thinking about it.

We’re using our brains in such strange ways. Sagan said we are a way for the universe to know itself. Yeah, we think about the universe a lot, but usually we’re just thinking about how our hair looks. I think we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the most bizarre things, like cats chasing lasers. Stranger still, we rarely take a step back to consider these things from other points of view, like the cat who knows it will never catch the laser but scurries after it whenever it flashes near.

This thought was about wondering why the universe doesn’t stop. This is a big question. Comparatively  it’s like asking the snail why it doesn’t go any faster. It’s restricted by the laws of its form. The universe is restricted in the same way. So are we. The universe can’t stop and I know this. Birth and death and renewal is all the universe knows. Anything that comes to be in its image will know this pattern. This is the way of things. I suppose what I’m wondering is whether or not the universe can control itself.

If we are the universe thinking about itself, than we’ve had plenty of deep thoughts like this. We’ve seen out into the universe, into ourselves, with telescopes and microscopes, and we’ve likely only scratched the surface of the complexity of it all. Maybe we just don’t know enough. Maybe we’re not going to be the species that gives the universe its answer. Maybe we’re not even close.

When–and if–we ever get there, I wonder if the universe will stop growing. I wonder if the cycle would stop. Kind of like how when you see the secret of a magic trick, you can’t stop seeing the hidden wires. Through all this violence and foolishness, however, I hope the end is worth it. I hope humanity turns all this bloodshed into a profound lesson, like a Tarantino movie with a Wes Anderson ending.

Imagine not worrying about your immune system. Or drinking enough water. Hard to do. We’re born into a biology we can’t control and we make the best with what we’ve got. We shouldn’t expect anything else, really. To be born is to die. There can’t be an alternative. If the universe didn’t work the way it did, it wouldn’t exist, not in the way we understand it now, that is. Our brains are galaxies and galaxies spin out eventually, too. We can’t picture a non-universe in the same way we can’t picture being a non-human. Who knows? Maybe the universe has headaches, menstrual cramps, growing pains, and self-esteem issues like the rest of us. We’re all one, after all, and that’ll never stop.

105. Greatness

I was born running. Felt it with my first breath, this need to chase it with a bigger, better one. We are born thinking we’ll be great. Some of us listened to the classical masterminds while we marinated in the womb if we had those parents who took that seriously. Maybe mine did. Fact is, we meet our gods before we open our eyes. Famous artists. Leaders of their kind. Idols. Some of us, we hear greatness while our ear drums are still forming and people wonder where motivation comes from. Already we look to the stars. And if we didn’t have any musical input from our parents, we met our gods in the delivery room, the masked doctors, the heroes who delivered us to our bearers. We owed them our lives for granting us our first cry and don’t think we ever forgot that. The rest of us, all of us, regardless of how it happened, what foods your mother ate, what lifestyle your parents brought you into, what Zodiac sign you fell under, we were born into prebuilt worlds we believed were made for us, and we were taught that we could do better.

I was born running. Born wanting. We must all start this way. For a couple weeks, as our nervous system finishes wiring together, we probably find it a bit confusing that we’re NOT famous composers or doctors or gods of any kind. We’re little balls of blubber with a fascinatingly vague understanding of the world. All we know is not too long ago we were an indistinguishable piece of the universe that has now sprouted arms and legs and vocal chords. We are born wanting to outrun our ancestors but we can’t even walk yet.

We forget about that drive. There’s too much else to focus on, like learning to share, follow directions, look both ways and tie your shoes. Your biggest goal is to survive until Saturday Morning Cartoons. The last thing you’re thinking about is what you want to be when you grow up, besides the Red Ranger, and that’s okay because goddammit it’s awesome to be a kid and we should be kids as long as we can.

Slowly it comes back to us. We see adults for what they are: experienced. We can learn from them. For a long time, they’re paid to teach us stuff and some of that stuff will stick and some of it will really change you. Things will start clicking. You remember the doctor. You remember music. You see the gods again. They’re familiar but you’ll never see them the way you once did. Now they’re simply experts. Anyone can be an expert if they put their mind to it. So what do you do? You put your mind to it.

Suddenly we’re running again. Chasing goals like butterflies, beautiful and hard to catch. We’re not alone. We’re all chasing something. After all, what else are we supposed to do? When we finally break out of our adolescence, we gasp for fresh air in a polluted atmosphere. The world is a mess and we come to learn this and then we strive to improve it. To better it. We were born destined to press onward, to build higher, faster, greener. The box gets bigger, we have to think farther, farther, farther to get outside of it. Observe science. Observe the population. All of us have an idea that we’re destined to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, not with them.

To be honest I’m not sure what this all means.

Worldwide, it seems like we have a big problem with the want for better. I’m not blaming Bach or Motzart, but I have an inkling that introducing infants into the world with echoes of Beethoven’s Für Elise in their squishy brains might be like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit, just out of reach. Not to say that no one ever catches that carrot (we DO have extremely talented musicians), but one man’s carrot creates a dozen more carrots, slightly bigger than the first. It’s as if we can’t NOT exist without carrots, carrotlessly, blissfully in awe at all the glory of the present state. Any architect, writer, politician, plumber, or hotdog vendor could tell you there’s always someone out there trying to one-up the rest of us, to dream grander dreams. We have become a species that sees greatness in others and strives to replace it with greaterness. And at the rate our population is growing, the pace of this Greatening is rapidly increasing.

Until when? Until there is nothing left to improve upon?

That is a world I do not want to see.

104. Paths

I’m having one of those moments.

You know of them. They come in different shapes and sizes, but they feel relatively similar. They possess the power to derail your everyday thoughts, insisting instead that you look a bit further into the future, like Frost and his two roads.

The interesting thing about those two roads is how we’re constantly choosing between paths without being aware of it. Our routines and patterns are choices, yet after time it just feels like normal, so we don’t question those choices like we used to. And for a while, things are good. You’ve picked your road, either the one less travelled on or the other. In the end, they start to feel like the same thing.

Yet every so often you come to a spot where two paths diverge and it stuns you. You weren’t ready for it. Thing is, there’s no way to backtrack. The curse of time is that it only moves forward. There will always be moments in life when two paths present themselves when you weren’t ready to change course, and your only choice is to choose.

It seems more exciting to take the road less travelled on. It seems wiser to follow a path beaten smooth by many footsteps before you. I suppose it comes down to how much of your life you want to improvise.

I suppose there is a third option. Rather than picking between the two diverging paths, take a hard look at the spot where you’re standing. Think about how you got there, what inspired you, who you met, what you’ve learned, who you’ve become. Sometimes we’re so busy driving forward that we forget to acknowledge the driver. It’s been said a thousand times but there’s really nothing quite like stopping to smell the roses now and again. We’re more than just Pac-Men chasing dots. We fascinate ourselves with our free will so much that we become slaves to it.

The third option says: “Stand still. Take a deep breath. Change is good but not a necessity. When you come to two paths, don’t forget that the first step in any direction comes from within. Remind yourself of what brought you to this moment of choice and try to recognize if, perhaps, you’re creating paths for the sake of creating paths. Maybe everything is okay. Maybe you just forgot.”

103. Slides

I counted two hundred and forty-two steps from bottom to the top; 242 wet, cement steps that lifted me from the wading pools to the mouth of a water slide at the top of a giant metal tower. From up here I could see the whole park. Birds were flying by at eye-level. Far off, the freeway, the hazy horizon, and an airplane that looked like it was flying low. Behind me were a hundred other kids on summer vacation looking to ride the tunnel back to earth. A college kid with a lifeguard t-shirt called me over and told me to get ready.

Ten years later, I’d be at that same spot, only I wouldn’t have anyone telling me to get ready. No one would tell me when to slide. But there I’d be on this precipice and the only way forward would be down, so I’d recall my sixteen-year-old bravery and take the ride.

There are no regrets. The ride was great. Now that’s it over, I’m thinking back on the ascent and descent of the past two years of my life, the climb and the slide. I’m all the more aware of the tentative steps I’m taking away from that slide, my feet still drying in the sun. You take with you the lessons learned on that slippery staircase and the sensation of a controlled fall.

With a slide, you know where it’ll spit you out. In the real world, experiences never come with predictable outcomes, so you close your eyes and take a risk.

The nervous unknowing is still the same. The suspense is there. You spend all this time climbing up towers to experience the thrill of a new ride, and some will be good and others will be bad, but regardless of the ride you end up at the bottom and you head out into the park to find another tower to climb. The slides always feel so short. It’s the searching and climbing that takes forever.

School is a slide. Work, slide. A vacation is a slide.

You have ideas of where it’ll pop you out, but who knows for sure. Sometimes a slide is all tower and no thrill, like waiting at the DMV to register your car. Sometimes climbing the tower is more fun than the slide, like acquiring debt versus paying off the debt. Sometimes the tower is defective and you never make it to the slide. Not your fault. Just keep climbing.

Relationships are slides, perhaps the most exhilarating type of slide there is.

242 steps up a tower could equate to months of suggestive flirting, and the slide might only last for a week. You could spend an hour climbing a tower with someone new and know already that this is the slide that you’ve been looking for all along, and maybe that ride goes for a year, maybe it goes forever. Either way, the fact is we never know how this will end, but we climb new towers regardless because it is in our nature to seek new vantage points.

This thought came to me today because I’m climbing an unfamiliar tower. I look around at people climbing with me and some of them are ecstatic, some of them are a little depressed, and everyone’s a little bit scared. We’re creatures born of the ground, so trusting the towers and water slides around us can be a daunting mental exercise. Fear is normal. It’s easier to stay in the cave but it’s more difficult to ignore curiosity, thus we always find ourselves eventually at the top of a tower we never expected, standing next in line for a water slide we can’t see the end of.

There are no lifeguards for life. Only you can decide to slide.

102. Story of a cell

At one point I was just a single cell, one little Cheerio in this vast and lonely bowl of milk. Floating about. Doing nothing of much significance until an act of reproduction cast me out of that bowl and into this warm, dark place where one Cheerio became two, became ten, became thousands, became an infant.

For a while there, I had no idea how lucky I was, this body of cooperating cells. I was a magic trick walking. A miracle of nature. We all start out as snowflakes at the center of our own universe. Gradually, conformity settles in. Society has its way with you. At some point you realize we’re all just variations of the same human. We move from a life of fantasy to facts as people start offering you explanations for things, scientific or religious. People tell you that all of this was written long before we came along. Or maybe it’s pure chaos. Either way, we all end up in debt.

I liked being a kid. It was rewarding. It was me, me, me. And toys. People made the big decisions for me. My religion was Saturday morning cartoons; the answer to life was found wrapped in plastic in the bottom of a cereal box. My biggest responsibility was school, which I endured begrudgingly. There was always a mental disconnect from public school, like a loveless relationship endured for the sake of a good lay.

English was the only subject that I found comfort in. Words made sense. Words made magic. I began writing at a young age and even though it was total nonsense and grammatically atrocious, it felt right. All those stories in my head suddenly found somewhere to land. It would be writing that kept me grounded during the mindfuck that is the process of growing up.

Growing up…

I never had conflicts with my family. Adults always seemed to know best, so I listened. I was quiet, observant, private, polite. I listened to advice. I followed most of the rules. Looked both ways, all that. Should’ve brushed better. Steered clear of peer pressure by deftly navigating the tributaries of the social stream, never quite allied with any one group. Neutral, passive, calm.

I view the world with a pair of big blue eyes that can’t quite fathom the depth of the universe, but I take comfort in the unknown. I still feel like a wide-eyed infant blindly grasping at fuzzy, colorful things.

I like myself this way but it comes at the consequence of feeling inconsequential. I prefer to stand ringside with a notepad and a camera, which means I rarely feel or want to feel like the center of attention. I shy away from compliments. I’m no good at giving them, either.

What blows my mind is how different and identical our lives are. Even if I feel different, I know that I’m not. The tiny infinite moments that make our experiences unique and the grand motions that make us all the same. You can only be so special, you can only be so human.

I didn’t feel like a real person until I passed the age that my father was when I was born, which was six years ago. I didn’t feel like myself until the winter of 2009, when I sat in a windowsill, drank a lot of wine, and listened to a lot of Modest Mouse.

College went by fast and I’m not exactly sure what happened there or what the point was. It was a blur of coffeeshops, all-nighters, sexual tension, and invincibility. I learned a valuable lesson or two, but hell if I know what they were.

Then there was a musician, a dog, and two cats. And then there was none.

I like (midtown) Sacramento. It’s always been a “starter city,” a sort of stepping stone between graduation and The Big City, wherever in the world The Big City may be. Most Californians look to San Francisco for a fulfilling urban experience, as do I, but after a semester in Istanbul I’ve realized that The Big City could be anywhere. Except Paris. Paris is too cliche for a writer.

There have been women but I’m no closer to reaching or understanding the pinnacle that is true love. Sadly, your faith in such a thing begins to wane far too early. There have been many fulfilling friendships along the way. I miss people more than I admit.

Now I’m here, 26 years old. What was once a little Cheerio has now passed the quarter-life mark. Who woulda thought? Some little particle of stardust turned into a living, breathing human being. Me. And there’s you, reading this, an equally valuable evolution of microscopic magic.

I guess the point of this thought is to pay attention to your growth. To be happy that you’re here. To think back on influences and decisions, to wonder where it will all lead, to find meaning in the messiness. Life is a chance for you to turn a single cell into a story. Otherwise, we might as well have stayed in the milk.

101. Unpacking

I wonder if this is how a squirrel feels at the start of Spring, gathering up the nuts it buried in the forest. Digging up caches under the brush, skirting through the trees looking for old owl holes. There must be some elation, not only because the squirrel gets to eat, but because the squirrel has no personal belongings save for its nuts. (There’s a joke there, for another time). This is not only the animal’s food, but also its stuff. So unpacking all my stuff in my new studio must be akin to a twitchy little squirrel reveling in its Springtime bounty, reunited with all its old things.

I wrote a thought about hoarders a while back. Luckily I still have space to walk around, so I’m not quite a hoarder, but goddamn if I don’t always end up with more stuff every time I move. I don’t even know where it comes from half the time.

Finally put away my last emptied box today. My last stash.

The accomplishment is rewarding. I’ve survived moving, as the forest creatures survive winter, and I greet the changing of the seasons ready for a new year. I’ve gathered together all my things and put them away and reinvented myself in my new space.

We’re nomadic creatures, I think. At least we started that way. Living in caves, following the sun, migrating. It wasn’t until we figured out how to build free-standing structures that we really began settling in one place. Even then, it’s common for folks to hop from one place to the next, even within the same city limits. Life happens. Opportunities arise, good or bad, and our addresses fluctuate.

Migration is natural. When you get there, remember that though all the energy it takes to pack, to move, to reorganize… Eventually you’ll empty that last box, you’ll be THERE, and it will feel great. You might lose a few things in the transition, but like the squirrel, you get better at it with practice.

So here I am. And there you are. One day, I’m sure you’ll move. You’ll pack up all your things into little boxes, bury them for a bit, and dig them up again when the sun comes back. You’ll find things you thought you lost. You’ll pick up things that give you flashbacks. You’ll pick up things and wonder why in the hell you still hold onto them. Little parts of you. Your cache. Your nuts.

100. Live and learn

Make mistakes, don’t repeat them. Learn new skills, use them. Make new friends, keep them. I can think of no regular day when a human mind doesn’t acquire one parcel of new knowledge, whether it be the formula that cures a disease or a newfound appreciation for the way the sunlight looks when it comes through the trees at five PM. Live and learn. It’s what we’re made for.

Today marks the end of another phase of my life, the mid-season finale. While many things are going to be the same on the inside, the scenery and cast members are shifting. Scripts are being rewritten. I’m scrambling to memorize my new lines.

When life moves along at a steady, predictable pace, you tend to forget that you’re here to learn. Even animals with less powerful brains know this basic tenet of existence. Brains are sponges. The world is our teacher. But like any sponge, it hardens if it’s not used. Like any teacher, the world ignores us if we’re not participating. So even when things are dull, remember that your brain still needs nourishing. Read books, take walks, meet strangers… You get from the world as much as you put in.

Then there are moments when nothing is steady or predictable. It feels like Mount St. Helens just exploded inside your head and you can’t figure out which way to run. Truth is: running in any direction results in growth and knowledge, even if you run right into the molten lava (metaphorically speaking). The trick is to not stand still and wait around for guidance. This is your mental volcanic eruption and no one else can tell you what to do. If you let others lead the way, you’ll learn far less.

And that’s the whole point of life, isn’t it? To make the most of that brain?

Some phases of life will feel rich with life lessons and revelations. Some will seem boring. But all the while remember that we are in charge of the remote control and we can change phases like we change television channels, perhaps not so easily, but nothing worth it ever came easily. It doesn’t matter what kind of phase you’re in; the lessons are out there.

This is the kind of stuff I tell myself when life takes unexpected turns. When suddenly you’re single, living on your own, neck-deep in grad school homework, and uncertain about where it’s all going to lead.

All I know is when it’s all over, I’ll know more than I did before.

99. Problems

I used to feel bad for German Shepherds because they’re born predisposed for hip problems. We bred them to be our best friends and when they get old they suffer. But they’re not the only animals born with problems to face. In fact, we’re all born with problems. If there’s one thing that unites all species on this planet, its our capacity to gather problems.

For example, all of us are born with expiration dates. Our hair falls out. We get wrinkles. Knees get weak. We, too, have hip problems.

When we’re babies, we’re basically a bundle of problems wrapped up in a diaper. We can’t defend ourselves. We can’t walk, speak, or feed ourselves. Lovable as we might be, we’re a big problem for our parents, who suffer sleepless nights and lifestyle changes. It’s a problem trying to figure out what school to send those kids when they grow up. It’s a problem trying to help them with their problems: bullies, homework assignments, braces, first loves and heartbreaks, college applications…

Problems vary from culture to culture, sometimes from one side of town to the next. First world or third world, a problem is still a problem, and it seems like we’re put on this earth solely to figure out a way to solve this endless barrage of predicaments. From figuring out how to pay a bill to figuring out how to handle our emotions to defending our rights against an oppressive government… Problems, man! Can’t seem to avoid bumping antlers with some problematic beast now and again.

But that’s why we have these brains in our skulls. We’re natural problem solvers, if we put our mind to it. We figured out how to stay warm with fire, how to build a car on four round wheels, how to build skyscrapers, how to land on the moon, and most importantly, how to put cheese in a can. We’re goddamn geniuses.

Most days we wake up with at least six problems to take care of.

A German Shepherd has it easy compared to us. All it worries about is how much time it should allot to tail chasing and figuring out which corner of the flowerbed it wants to dig up today. Then it gets hip problems and dies. We take care of most of its problems along the way.

Day to day, no one can solve our problems for us. If we had someone do all the thinking for us, then what would be the point of living? It’s the daily problems of life that give spice to our existence. Sure it’s good to have help now and again, but in a strange way we ought to be glad to feel a little overburdened. Of course I say this while I’m sitting inside an apartment sitting next to a heater, and so my problems pale in comparison to those who struggle for shelter on the daily, but like I said, degrees of problems can vary greatly between people. I’m where I am due to a long history of decisions that span beyond myself, as you are where you are because of a billion tiny details that came before you. Don’t feel bad that your problems are “easier” than someone else’s. That’s life.

The problem is not that we have different problems. That’s not a problem, that’s a given.

Problems are the breadcrumbs we follow out of the wild forest of life. As soon as we solve one, another crumb appears further along the trail, and we scurry forth to see what brainpower is required to move past it, and so on, and so on, and so on.

Anyway, problems are a part of life. On some primal level, we love them

Just don’t let them weigh you down. If you see someone having trouble with theirs, lend a little of your brainpower and see what you can accomplish together.

98. Hoarders

There used to be just two of us. Remember those days?

I was the hunter. You, the gatherer.

Now I knew you had a propensity for collecting things. It was your nature. While I was out skinning sabre-toothed tigers, you were filling half the cave with acorns and wild berries so that we would have sustenance through the winter when the tigers migrated. There was a need to collect a lot of things. We survived because of the Gatherer’s want for many.

These days, we don’t need to fill pantries with pounds of loose nuts and berries. For many, all it takes is a trip to the corner market to get food, if not ten steps to the refrigerator. We don’t really gather the way we used to. Instead of food, we go out into the world to gather money. Gathering is also no longer a gendered term. Man or woman, we’re all suckers in the same rat race. That refrigerator won’t pay for itself.

The point is, gathering is in our nature.

I say this because now instead of using the term “gatherer,” we use “hoarder.”

There are people out there with huge collections of polished antique silverware, but we call them Collectors. It’s the one’s with hallways lined with towers of newspapers that we call Hoarders. Simply having a lot of something doesn’t make it a “collection,” though. A billion bath-toy ducks could even mark you as a Hoarder, because who the hell would want to keep a billion toy ducks around? If you’re confused about the distinction between Collector and Hoarder, just know that the Hoarder’s house will probably have more cats in it.

We make them out to be crazy. We treat them like they’re breaking some human law, when in fact it is the accuser that should be on trial. We chastise them for gathering supplies for their cave. It is the accuser that is fighting human nature by shaping their lives after an IKEA catalogue.

I don’t mean to say that having a clean and tidy house is a bad thing. In fact there are health benefits related with keeping one’s house in good shape. If we have gained anything from our loss of gathering desires, it’s longer lives.

I’d argue that there are many of us “evolved” folks that still gather in small ways. Books. We gather books. Women, you gather shoes. Gamers gather achievement points. We gather photographs. A lot of us have trinkets like porcelain angels or cow figurines or old WWII propoganda posters, things we clutter our shelves with. Things we consider extensions of ourselves.

Different, of course, than the man with a thousand ashtrays. Or the woman still in possession of every article of clothing she’s ever owned. These are the hoarders. But if I have every National Geographic magazine, I’m a Collector. I suppose it has to do with value, both monetary and social. We all have this pretty clear idea of something with value and something without, though obviously there are some differences of opinion.

To the Hoarders, be careful. You don’t live in a cave. You’ll survive the winter. You don’t need to have a thousand of anything. To everyone else, do not point fingers. A Hoarder is more human than you are, they just need a little coaxing out of the cave.

97. Common cold

The worst part about most sicknesses, besides the suffering, is the fact that you can get other people sick, too. It’s bad enough having to sniffle and cough yourself half-to-death, but now you’ve also got to worry that you’ll spread this discomfort to another. I mean, it’s not my fault that I caught the bug in the first place, and now I’ve got to worry about keeping it to myself. I didn’t ask for that responsibility. I don’t want it, either!

Not only that, but it’s way too easy to get others sick. I so much as sneeze and I picture a million little bacteria heading out like prospectors going west for gold. They’ll latch onto anything and all of a sudden everyone in the house is a virus factory. Who gets the blame? Not the microscopic bugs, but me, Patient Zero.

But I got sick the same way you did.

Which makes me wonder if our immune systems need updating. We ought to be able to go to the pharmacy and pick out immune system enhancements. I don’t want cures, I want more preventative medicine!

What to do when you’re already sick, though… It seems the only options are drugs and isolation. No one wants to be around you. No one knows how to act around you. They’ll avoid eye contact as if your illness were transferable through sight.

So far the best remedy for sickness I’ve found is a loved one. Wife, girlfriend, family member… Someone who can stand you when you’ve turned into a drugged-out sniffling zombie with tissues stuffed in your nostrils. Someone who knows which herbal tea you need. Someone who knows where the medicine is and where the last can of chicken soup is hiding.

The point is, we’re fragile creatures. Even our best defense, the flu shot, goes obsolete about as regularly as the iPhone. We have few methods of preventing illnesses but a million ideas on how to get rid of them once we’ve caught them. Seems a bit backward, doesn’t it? For a cold so common as the Common Cold, it’s a bit strange that we’re still dealing with it. Anyway, here’s to hoping we’ll have it figured out by next winter.

96. Rebellion

Don't Do It

I’ll repeat the question: What is it about these warnings that make us want to do them?

What godawful curse of curiosity requires us to do the exact opposite of what someone explicitly told us not to do? It seems so wrong, doesn’t it? Here we get truthful, honest advice and we simply won’t take it. Sorry. You even know we won’t take it. Half the time we tell someone not to do something it’s because secretly we want them to do it. All of us fall for it. Before finishing this paragraph you probably already searched everything we suggested you don’t.

Regret it, don’t you?

Well, you’ll get over it. And you’ll do it again.

To be absolutely honest, I haven’t yet searched “blue waffle.” I’d rather just stick with my own imagination than get something even worse cemented into my brain. This time, I’m adhering to the advice. I won’t play those mind games anymore.

Update: Goddamn it. I looked.

Why? Why ignore the warning label? Why rebel so openly? What is it about human kind that seeks trouble? What gene within us begs us to pull fire alarms and run red lights? There have been proven, repeated, often negative outcomes from the very things that we are advised to avoid, yet we seek them anyway. Everyone wants to shoot a gun, even if we’re scared of them.

From the small, “Don’t run around the pool,” warning to the big, “Stop or I’ll shoot,” warning, we’ve got this collective desire to ignore negative commands. We don’t like being told what not to do. We hate it. All of us. Secretly or openly, we feel that the last thing we were born on this planet to do is take orders. No mattress has its tag left on it.

I will NOT wait thirty seconds before opening my steaming bag of microwave popcorn.

I will NOT come to a complete stop.

One random piece of advice I picked up in my lifetime was, in the case of trying to remember things, the trick is to frame it positively. Rather than saying, “Don’t forget to go to the store,” you should say, “Remember to go to the store.”

Hell, I’d probably still forget. No one tells ME what to remember!

The point is, we’re an interesting species. We’re prone for trouble. The last thing we want is a neat and tidy universe. No wonder the news is full of madness and mayhem. It’s no wonder that the fighting won’t end, crime won’t dwindle, and drugs will prevail. If you tell us to be happy, we’ll only get sad. If you tell us to behave, we’ll only light fuses. Sorry.

I’m not saying that any of this is excusable. Rules are usually made for a reason, and when we run around breaking them, we know very well what we’re doing. It’s a cycle of self-destruction. We won’t break it until we actually listen to our own advice.

When the aliens come, perhaps not long from now if the Mayans have anything to say about it, these extraterrestrials will have no idea what to make of us. They’ll come in peace and we’ll give them war.

95. Reunions

Guest Thought from Ben Weinberg

:::

It is a very joyous (and under appreciated) feeling to be able to meet up with friends who you have not seen in a long time. Sometimes it feels like you never left them in the first place. Sometimes it feels like you’re meeting them for the first time all over again.

The older you get, the more likely your friends will move around the country or around the world and it’s possible to lose touch with them. It’s natural, but sad nonetheless. I was lucky enough to see these three friends of mine again in New York City this past weekend after not seeing them for the six months after the end of our exchange student program in Istanbul. It was an ecstatic feeling being able to see all of these people who I had gotten friendly with during my study abroad experience back in the flesh in front of me.

The idea of a reunion plays into the very nature of human beings and how we are social animals above all else. We urge to be connected with each other especially after having not seen one another in a while. When we do reconnect, the memories come flooding back, for better or for worse. A familiar face is like a familiar song, able to bring you back in time.

My study abroad experience simply wouldn’t have been the same if I didn’t have friends to share with it. In all honestly, the people who you surround yourself throughout your life affect the experiences you have more than you would think.

I am one who prefers life’s experiences when I have people to share them with. Moments carry an extra significance when you bond with people as they happen. Traveling abroad, eating, drinking, dancing, and any other social activity that we human beings engage in throughout the course of our lives should be shared with others. I’m not against a quiet, solitary moment here and there, but we are social creatures, and reunions remind us of that.

Reunions can be spontaneous and you never when they’re going to happen again. It is important to savor those chances to meet up with those people again that you have not seen in a long time.

During this recent reunion with friends, I felt many positive emotions brimming to the surface and I remember trying to savor each of those elated moments that night. I enjoyed every laugh, every inside joke, every story we each shared together in Istanbul and it made me very happy to be able to see these friends again. It made me want to keep in touch with them even more and to see their faces again.

Distance and time are strong barriers but can be overcome quite easily in this day and age if you try hard enough. We exist for such a short amount of time and it’s the people we share that existence with that will influence us the most, so we should try harder to keep in touch.

94. Santa Clause

The older I get, the more I want to believe in Santa Clause. I find myself fascinated by the magic and charm of the old North Pole legend. Long removed from my childhood wonderment, the idea of a chubby man in a red suit popping presents down my chimney has since evolved into a respect for tradition and storytelling. I think it’s healthy to believe in at least one fantastic element in your life.

Obviously Santa is not real. He’s a marketing campaign gone viral. He’s a holiday season goldmine for children’s movies. He’s a figment of our imagination impersonated by actors in shopping malls.

And many will say he’s a symbol of capitalism. He’s racist and classist. He’s a lazy bastard who uses slave labor to create cheap toys. Not to mention, he’s a crafty criminal who breaks into our houses. Who knows what untold abuse those reindeer go through.

Yet we still leave out the cookies.

For those who follow along with the Santa Clause tradition, I commend you. Not only does Santa make a good tool for behavior modification around the holiday season, but it gives children a taste of real-world fantasy. While they’ve certainly read and seen their fair share of magic and wizardry, they rarely get to actually live it. Santa brings mystery into their lives. For a few years, they believe in the possibility of a fairytale.

Eventually that wears off and the wrapping paper repeats and the kid recognizes Mom’s handwriting in Santa’s signature. Then children often rebel against the idea, revealing the truth to their younger siblings and friends. We all act out against those who betrayed us.

It wasn’t until I’d long abandoned the idea of Santa that I recognized the other value of old Saint Nick. It was the story of him that I liked. It was the idea that such a tradition could be born, akin to the old tales of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, and that they could acquire a life of their own and truly thrive. These are stories that somehow feel engrained in the soil of the country, that grow with each new generation, giving grandiose, yet simplified explanations of traditions and history.

Santa served as a neutral character in comparison to the religious weight of the holiday, a figment of cultural imagination that we could all believe in without going to church. He didn’t preach or spread gospel around. He just wanted people to be merry. He wanted people to share with each other. He wanted families to come together. He wanted children to write wish lists and learn that being good was usually all it took to make wishes come true. It wasn’t about devotion, it was about believing in the dream.

Santa is a part of our cultural history now. He is a holiday creation, the bringer of gifts. He might’ve gone through a few revisions, but the story remains the same. As I get older, I remind myself to keep the tradition alive. I remind myself to believe.

93. Permanent goodbyes

I can’t think of many moments stranger than saying goodbye to someone you know you’ll never see again. I mean, that’s it. You have a couple last words, you look them in the eye–like, you really look them in the eye–and you soak it in as best you can. Truth is, you’ll turn around and walk off and with astonishing speed, you’ll start to forget the details. You’ll have nothing but a memory of them to prove that they were ever real. Our minds move on quicker than our hearts.

Not all goodbyes are so serious, of course. We say goodbye to strangers and cashiers that we’ll never see again and it doesn’t really bother us. We put those faces and conversations into our short term memory and let it slide away willingly. There’s no reason to store every interaction.

Then there are the big goodbyes. The friends and family members, who, for whatever reason, we won’t see again. Those ones hurt and they take a while to heal. Feels sometimes like actual parts of you are missing, and we’re not starfish so it’s not like we can just grow that part back. We use time to seal the wound. Time is a fickle bandage.

What got me thinking about the permanent goodbye was my final meeting with the girl I was tutoring. Our meetings in the library were held somewhat regularly over the past three months, giving us a good amount of time to become familiar. I can’t say we were friends because I maintained a consistent teacher-student distinction, but after about twenty hours, cumulatively, you get used to having them in your life. And when the time came to end our tutoring sessions, I felt odd, like a starfish looking at its own severed arm, wondering how things would be different without it, wondering what new part would grow in its place.

I see this being a concern as I aspire toward a career in teaching.

You spend months and months, day after day, with those kids and I like kids, so I can see how parting ways at the end of the year could pull hard on my heart strings. If I felt sad at the idea of ending a tutoring gig, then imagine me saying goodbye to a hundred different kids who have basically become my life and purpose. I’m not saying I can’t do it–I’m actually pretty good at separations like this. Life goes on. I know that. But the weight of these goodbyes, in that moment, in that realization that you’re looking at someone for the last time, is always startling.

Like the last page of a book. The final frame of a movie.

Blink, and they’re gone.

You’ve crossed paths on this crazy wild ride called Life and now it’s time to veer away again, to continue forward in one direction while they take another. You might never know what happens to them. One day, years from now, you’ll look back on this time and you’ll remember them, vaguely, and you’ll wonder where they ended up. Did you influence them? Did they influence you? I think it’s impossible to meet anyone and not have the rest of your life slightly affected by their presence.

Maybe that is what’s so fascinating by the permanent goodbye.

You say goodbye, but they’ll always be with you.

92. Wal-Mart Jesus

Guest Thought from Megan Chaussee

:::

There was a time when I dreaded my weekly visit to the local Wal-Mart Superstore. Once there I would have to contend with all sorts of frustrations and inconveniences just to restock my kitchen for the week. Every time I used the last of the milk to fill a bottle or Sippy cup, my shoulders sagged a little with the realization that I’d have to go back to Wal-Mart.

Crowds. Long lines. Crappy parking. Crazy people. Broken carts. Wardrobe malfunctions. It was an unpleasant errand, to say the least.

I know, I know. I could go to Whole Foods or a farmer’s market to purchase locally grown, organic produce. I could waltz into my nearest Nugget affiliate and enjoy the luxury of wide, meticulously manicured aisles and dairy products devoid of toxic hormones. I could watch in detached amusement as a well-spoken (read: white) bagger stowed my groceries carefully away in the back of my car. Unfortunately, the flipside to these options is very simple: they cost.

I was never willing (able) to spend the money necessary to consistently shop at these types of establishments. Instead I chose the politically incorrect, sell-your-soul for a Great Value option that is the Wal-Mart Corporation. There seems to be a snake’s head in this bag of frozen broccoli, but they’re only charging 89 cents for it. The savings are significant enough to forgive such sins.  Add to cart.

Having decided upon Wal-Mart as my go-to grocery source, I settled into an angry pattern of weekly shopping trips. Why won’t Miss Sweat Pants move out of my way? How long does it take to pick out a can of peas? Why is my cart shrieking?  Why is this line so long? Who’s yelling? Why didn’t anyone bring enough money to pay for their items? Why is this ladder here? What’s that smell?

The questions never ended – and I found myself exhausted, irritable, and disgusted with humanity by the end of each visit.

Within the last year, though, my outlook shifted. The answer appeared to me, as if from nowhere. Life is too short to be the angry mother-of-two pushing around a cart with a sour expression on her face.

Life is beautiful. Hence…Wal-Mart is beautiful.

Ever since, I find myself pacing the aisles with a serene, far away expression. I smile beatifically at the half-naked children throwing discount Blu-rays into my cart. The tattooed man blocking my path with his motorized scooter is my sacred brother. I will gift you the two dollars you need to purchase that feminine product, Ma’am. We bleed the same blood.

The good people of Wal-Mart are my brethren. I walk amongst them and embrace their raw humanity. I wish them love, light, and peace when our time together is over.  I forgive them their sins. Aren’t we all cut from the same over-drafted, underdressed, slightly misshapen human cloth? We stand together, imperfect.

Wal-Mart is my new meditation; my true religion.

I am a Wal-Mart Jesus.

91. Fake crowds

Guest Thought from Sean Fryer

:::

Alright. That’s it.

I have held my tongue long enough. As a fan of cinema there is something that has been niggling at me for a few years now, simmering just below the surface of my subconscious. I didn’t know what it was specifically.

Then as I sat bored and channel surfing one evening, I happened upon a Revenge of the Nerds movie (which one doesn’t matter here). And I hung on that channel, marveling at what people thought was funny in the 80′s, and the movie was near the end where the two factions (nerds vs. jocks) are battling it out for something, a trophy or respect or both or something. There was a crowd of cheering extras, rooting and jumping and hollerin’ and clapping and shaking their fists in the air… and it dawned on me.

It looked totally fake.

It was as if the director had told them to be enthusiastic but LOOK like you don’t know why. Trust me on this. There are quite a few ‘fake crowds’ in dozens of movies, and only a few of them seem authentic (The Natural with Robert Redford comes to mind), but a great majority of films just don’t quite cut it as realistic.

Like any movie with a ski competition. Or Adam Sandler movies.

My point being this… Now I can’t stop scrutinizing movies with crowds and judging how real they look. And now that I put it into your thoughts, you will now do the same. Fake crowds in movies. Don’t know why they irk me but I’m sure I am not alone.

90. Thief

I stole something today. I’m not afraid to admit it. I won’t tell you who or where I stole from, since I’m pretty sure Safeway doesn’t read this blog. I don’t want to tell you what it was. Doesn’t matter what it was. To ease your mind, I’ll tell you it was small and inexpensive and edible. The fact is, I took it without paying for it, and so by any standard of the act, I am a criminal.

Astonishing, how easy it is to cross that line.

One moment I was a law-abiding citizen. Clean record. Good health. Just your average middle-class male. Then, with the smallest action, the pocketing of a small, easily forgettable item, I became a wanted man.

The truth is, though I don’t think this will hold up in court, I simply forgot that I’d put the item in my pocket. Cross-my-heart honestly forgot. After perusing the other aisles for other goods with the intention to pay for them, its presence in my pocket slipped my mind. Didn’t think of it again until I was outside unlocking my bike. Woops. My bad.

I’m a criminal, regardless. A thief.

In the same vein, you could just as easily become a sinner. A liar. A cheater. A terrorist. A bully. A bigot. Sometimes all it takes a single act (justified or not) and suddenly you’re labeled, pigeonholed, identified for life by that title. Acts like these, their weight is determined by a jury of our peers. We don’t have a re-do button. There’s no going back from certain actions.

Do it once, shame on me forever.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. Some titles ought to stick: like murderer, molester, rapist… I think there are lines that people cross that shouldn’t be forgotten. Inhuman acts. Hurtful acts. Such marks on your record ought to be written in permanent ink. Then there are smaller degrees of criminal or indecent (I say even forgivableacts that should be written in pencil, something that time or behavior could repair. Yet even these, we still label as though the labels had been carved or tattooed on peoples’ foreheads. I’m not sure where the line is. I’m not sure what makes one label more severe than another; why some stick and others fade.

I stole, and so did Bonny and Clyde. Do I deserve the same bullet salad the cops served them during that climactic ambush? I don’t think so.

But how long until I’ve shed the label of thief, from your perspective? Personally, I don’t consider myself a thief, even though I’ve thieved. But according to your guidelines, or the guidelines of the law, how much time has to pass before I’m back to being a regular guy without a criminal label?

I say I’m a criminal for as long as it takes to completely digest the evidence.

But you may never look at me the same way again.

89. Grammar

I teach English someday. In other country. Like yours, maybe. We will learned to write good. Have fun, grammar always, yes. Good grammar makes good student happy grade. I teach English at classroom for the making of great. Students ears fill over from learning so much things.

Okay, enough of that. It’s more difficult to write a grammatically incorrect sentence than I imagined, with some knee-jerk reaction always reaching for that DELETE key when I mix tenses or forget an apostrophe. Grammar affects every little part of a sentence. You can’t write without grammar. It astonishes me, then, when people say we ought to avoid teaching it.

Now, that doesn’t mean they want absolute chaos.

The best part about English being the lingua franca is that people from all countries can use it as a tool for communication across borders. I can go to Turkey and have a conversation with a simit vendor about the weather, if I wanted, because we share a common language. A business woman from India can vacation in South Africa and have a long conversation about digital cameras with a French photo-blogger. If they want.

So when a teacher or researcher advocates steering clear of explicit grammar instruction, it’s not because they want to dismantle the English language. They’re simply leaning more toward the function of English as a tool, as a means of communication. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to make enough sense to convey meaning. You can mispronounce things. You can forget your plural markers. You can mix verb tenses. It’s all gravy so long as you’ve expressed what you meant to express and, perhaps with a bit of negotiation, your listener has understood.

But I like grammar.

I think we let grammar frighten ourselves at an early age, like some kind of monster under the bed. We get through present, past, and future tense and then someone mentions the perfect tense and we freak out. Don’t get me started on the panic sweat that erupts on most of our foreheads when we’re asked if we should use “who” or “whom.”

And who the F came up with gerunds?

I think we need to make grammar explicit. I think we need students to know, early, that grammar is like the earth. The mountains are like nouns. People are like verbs. Animals are prepositions. Oceans are conjunctions. Trees can be demonstrative pronouns. Teach them that without grammar, there would be no language. Without the ingredients of the earth, we’d have no life.

Now, I’m still new at this ESL teaching thing, but I’m pretty sure if you start the kids at a young age without a fear of grammar, then laying out the foundation for them will be the most beneficial.

Arguments can be made, by the innatists like Chomsky, that all you need to do is use English around language learners and they’ll acquire the rules deductively. Imagine a student like a sponge, only instead of soaking up water they’re soaking up articles and relative clauses.

And maybe that really works. Who knows? The point is, you probably know less about your language than a ten-year-old kid in South Korea.

I find it amazing that we develop our language ability at such a young age that we don’t even remember acquiring it. This magical, wonderful tool, given to us, free of charge, with hardly any effort at all. So when we grow up and some of us decide to teach English as a career, we realize that we know jack-squat about the development process we undertook, as if Dumbledore came to our crib and uttered, “Englishium Speakiorus!” and so it was.

Next time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “How do I know this?”

You’d be surprised how many things you know, but hardly understand.

88. Time change

Why only one hour?

Time gives meaning to our rotation around the sun. We made it up. Time, not the rotation. The rotation will happen with our without our clocks. The universe follows no schedule, knows no hour. We made up time, like the gods, to help make sense of a lot of things. So we could plan things. So we could DVR the next episode of “Walking Dead” from our smartphones.

I ask again: Why only one hour?

The truth is we can never stop time now that it’s been created, like an avalanche. The hands of the clock only spin forward. All we can do is accept it because we can’t out run it.

I think this bothers us. I think our own construct got the best of us, and in a fit of jealous rage we decided not to let our own inventions determine how much time we spent with the sun. When the fall and winter rotation of our planet took the sun away, guess what we did? WE CHANGED TIME.

But for what? An extra hour of sunlight?

Some argue it saves energy costs by requiring less artificial light. Some argue it encourages evening activities. Some would say it gives farmers’ crops more sunlight. Some would say it’s part of a fight against the vampires.

I don’t care. I just do as I’m told.

But I think we need to get a little more creative with our Time Manipulation.

I want a six-hour rollback. I want to go to bed at 11:00 PM and wake up at 2:00 AM and feel totally rested. I want my midnight to be my noon. I want to go to school at 3:00 AM and be home in time for dinner at 11:00 AM. I’m not worried about taking advantage of the sunlight. I could sleep through the bright hours and take advantage of the moon, instead. Or maybe something less drastic. Roll back the clock fifteen minutes, once a week. Keep us on our toes. Maybe pick a day to roll forward twenty-four hours, then roll it back at the end of the month. Make February shorter. Make the summer longer. Split up a Wednesday and finish it later. Let us sleep more during the winter and make us active in the spring. Make one day last fifty hours. See what we can do with a two-hour Monday. Try out a twelve-day weekend that lasts nine hours, and somehow make that logically possible. Time is ours. Play with it.

Anyway, thanks for the extra hour of sleep.

87. Onions

Okay, okay, I get it. I get it now.

It took a Blimpie’s special-of-the-week 6-inch sandwich to prove it. I never thought I’d say this, but I have officially come to like onions. True story.

A few days ago, while ordering my sandwich, the bespectacled bald Blimpie’s owner with the middle-eastern accent asked me, motioning toward the smorgasbord of turkey, provolone, lettuce, pickle, tomato, salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar already smothering my choice of bread, “Onions?”

There was a hesitation.

For twenty-five years I had replied: “Nay, my friend. Onions don’t belong between those freshly-baked slices of honey-oat. Not now, not ever.”

I looked this man in the eyes. His hand, hovering over the plastic tin of white raw onion slices, shiny as slivers of the moon.

I didn’t think about my first McDonald’s hamburgers, where I’d pull off the bun and scrape off those onion pebbles into my cheese-smeared wrapper. I didn’t think about eating everything but the onions in mom’s dinner salads. I didn’t think of their crisp bite or the worry of onion-breath. Instead I felt something new: curiosity, but something more, like trust.

For the first time ever, I said, “Yes,” to onions.

A sandwich is a magical realm where all good things come together to share their talents by way of seducing your taste buds in an orgiastic assault that hits like a hard kiss. Obviously I was worried that inviting onions to the party would throw off the balance. I’d have a flavor that felt out of place–the awkward guy in the corner. How foolish I felt when I took my first bite and realized that onions are not only a valuable part of the sandwich dynamic, but they nearly deejay the whole shebang.

You know when there’s a collective lull in conversation when you’re hanging out with people, but you’re thankful that there’s loud music playing to cover the silence? That’s what onions do.

The best thing about onions is that they don’t brag.

They knew I’d come around eventually, and so they waited, patiently, in the tins of sandwich shops, soaked in vinaigrette dressing at the bottom of a salad, snuck between the buns of a hamburger… They never forced themselves upon me. They waited until I was ready.

And they didn’t say, “I told you so.”

The point is, I think we should eat everything we can (and aren’t allergic to). Anything someone cooks for us. Finish your plate. Anything the man at Blimpie’s offers us. Don’t order the same-old-thing. Anything that exists on a menu, which somewhere, someone enjoys… Eat it. Try it. Put that in your mouth, chew on it, consume it, and make up your own opinion of it.

There are foods out there that you will love, but you don’t know it yet.

86. Favorites

Guest Thought from Jerry Carvalho

:::

We all have favorites: favorite movies, favorite songs, favorite foods, even favorite people. No one really knows why or how we choose our favorites. We could choose our favorites based on a smell, a touch, a fond memory, or a similarity to our own perceived condition. It does not really matter how or why we choose our favorites, it is just important that we have them because they help define who we are. When times are good we seek out new experiences with the hope of developing new favorites. Somehow, we hope that these new favorites will make us more popular, more hip, better people. However, when times are bad or stressful we always revert back to the comfort and familiarity of our good, old favorites.

85. Nostalgia

Guest Thought from Kelsey Taylor

:::

Nostalgic is one of those things that most people like to be; 90′s kids make Facebook groups or start forums where they talk about the awesome TV shows they used to watch and how they are infinitely better than Anything That Ever Was And Will Be.  “You kids don’t know what you’re missing!” they say. “Your childhood did not involve Robert Munsch or Pokémon and therefore is not as good as mine.”

Everyone has an image of an old relative or the grumpy old man on the porch who is convinced that they lived in the “good old days”, and that  society is on a downward spiral.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be,” they say.

People like to talk about what they’re nostalgic about, but don’t really think about why it can be a problem.

The middle-aged guy who can’t stop talking about how high school or university were the best years of his life: what about everything else?  Maybe you’re married.  Maybe you have kids, and if you do I’m sure they are an important part of your life.  You might not, but I’m sure you have friends and other people who are important to you.  You might have a job, and if you don’t like your job I’m sure you have some sort of hobby.  You probably read a newspaper, have opinions, and care about things.  Or did you write off the rest of your life when you graduated?

People will talk about how “chivalry is dead,” but forget that there was a feminist movement that started in between then and now.  Sometimes we get the sense that “old-fashioned” things are more sophisticated, and a lot of this gets ascribed to our conceptions of what is romantic, for example.

Nostalgia is looking at the past through tinted glasses, remembering everything that was good but forgetting the things that weren’t so great.  Or, they might’ve worked for you, but maybe some people or groups weren’t having the best time.  We also have new inventions, new books, new senses of humour, new ways of understanding the world.  The present is pretty awesome; we shouldn’t be viewing it through a lens of the past.

Remembering our past is an entirely different thing, though.  Things that remind us of the past give us a good feeling, and that’s not a bad thing.  That song that reminds you of drunk nights in university, that time you studied abroad, your wedding, whatever, might make you smile because it is linked to a good memory.  Maybe you have an inside joke with an old friend, and it will make you laugh to yourself while you’re taking the bus to work.  You get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the act of remembering, and we generally call this “nostalgia”.  These memories and associations are part of what construct our individual narratives.  They are part of our identity.  We are the culmination of our life experiences: my personality was certainly shaped, in part, by the fact that I was obsessed with Pokémon as a child or that I know all the actions to “Stop” by the Spice Girls.  …Somehow.

The difference, I think, is when we make value judgements about the past.  Nostalgia in the abstract is fine – and the things we choose to emphasize and remember make up who we are.  Our past definitely influences our present.

We just have to remember that everyone has experiences, and we shouldn’t let our past define our present so much that we forget to live now.

84. Nothing

What is nothing?

It is difficult to picture nothing.

I’d argue that it’s our language that prohibits nothingness, for even having the language to shape our thoughts has birthed a tangible imagination. As wild as our thoughts are, they are contained by our language. Even the most abstract concepts like infinity, love, and motivation are wrapped tightly in vocabulary. Without langauge, what would ideas be? Feelings? I don’t know for sure.

Without language, it’s almost as if our existence ceases to be.

Well, okay, pain and hunger and the biological elements of our existence would continue. We wouldn’t be able to express how or why we eat or suffer or sleep, but we would do them anyway. Like robots, programmed.

With words, though, and the symbols we use for written language, we have removed the mystery. No longer do things simply happen, for there are words to explain all phenomena. There are even words to express the fact that one doesn’t know something. Even the lack of knowledge can be known. There are ways to express things we’ll never understand, which, in a way, is another way of understanding things.

An ability to say, “This is something I will never know,” is far more advanced than our ancestors, who viewed the unknown without knowing it was unknown, as an ant who comes across a leaf in its path and simply bounces off in another direction, not questioning the leaf, narrowly seeing the leaf, more observant of the fact that its forward motion was stalled, but not why or how or where the leaf came from.

We can no longer just be.

If only because we have the verb be.

Therefore, to imagine nothing is to imagine something. A dark space. A bottomless pit. Some other adjective, some other noun. We fill nothing with words, defeating the purpose of nothing, betraying one construct with another. We’re incapable of doing nothing.

Thanks to language, our thoughts have shapes and those shapes become words, sentences, theories. I’ve heard of people meditating to clear their minds to clear all thoughts, like someone dusting their entire house. I don’t buy it, though I’ve never tried it. Our brain’s are wired to acquire language. We’re designed to communicate. Even in total silence, our brain speaks.

I picture the meditating monk with a cleared mind like someone on a vast ocean, floating on a piece of driftwood, completely isolated from the outside world. Or perhaps floating in an endless vacuum. This, I imagine, is the quiet and tranquility they seek for whatever spiritual purpose they desire. Except they are still a noun, performing a verb.

I’m not trying to say that meditation is futile. I think it helps to quiet the vocabulary machines inside our brains that constantly, unconsciously  create language to explain the world around us. Closing our eyes, we see dark and we think quiet and we feel calm and we hear our heartbeat. But there is always something. There is never nothing.

So don’t feel bad about those lazy days when you do nothing. Don’t ever feel like you’re worth nothing.

It’s impossible.

83. Rules for the cabin

I’m planning a weekend trip to a secluded cabin in the woods.

Here are some rules:

I’m sorry, but if you know Latin, you can’t come on vacation with us. We can’t risk having you read the text of some ancient evil book that you find in the basement. Please, please, please don’t try to translate that Latin script written in dried blood on any mirror. I know you like to jump at any opportunity to use your knowledge of a dead language, but doing so might leave us all dead by the end of the weekend.

Also, if you have any siblings or distant family members currently locked away in a mental institution for reasons of psychotic rage, then you’re not coming. The last thing we need is for Mr. Stab-A-Lot to escape during a storm and drive a station wagon full of hate to our doorstep.

If you’re the kind that likes to investigate every eerie noise in the dark, then stay home. We don’t need you leading us into creepy basements and foggy caves because you thought you heard “something.” Cabins makes noises because they’re old. I don’t want you coming around making us think every creak is a death sentence.

If you’re asthmatic, stay home. Cabins are dusty.

If you’re mysophobic, stay home. Cabins are dirty.

If you’ve had any brush with the paranormal, then you’re not invited. When windows start rattling and disembodied voices start messing with our heads, then I’m going to blame you. The thing I know about ghosts is that they like attention. If you’ve seen a ghost, keep your sixth sense out of my cabin.

Remember that time people thought you were a witch? There was probably a good reason. People don’t forget. Stay home.

If you think whispering “Bloody Mary” three times in a dark bathroom is a fun way to pass the time, stay home.

If you think “Truth or Dare” is a good game for people in their mid-twenties, stay home. I brought Settlers of Catan and Apples to Apples. The last thing we need is for someone to dare Latin guy to read the ancient Latin text, because he will and we’ll all die (see above).

Leave your scary campfire stories behind.

No pets, if only because zombies don’t usually eat animals and (worst case scenario) who’s going to be around to feed them when we’re all converted into the mindless undead?

If you’re too sexy, too ugly, too virgin, too slutty, too quiet, too loud, too mean, or too nice, then you can’t come. We don’t like the extreme ends of any spectrum. I want bland people who won’t draw attention to themselves. The more you stand out, the less likely you’ll survive the first night.

If you believe in aliens and/or think you’ve been abducted in the past, then I rescind your invitation.

Did anyone in your family ever inexplicably disappear? Did you do something last summer that we should know about? Do you have a criminal record, a fake identity, or a quick temper? Are you in need of an exorcist? Did you ever sell your soul to the devil, even for something as mundane as a parking spot? If the answer to any of these questions is in the positive, then you’re positively not coming.

If you can still claim that none of these rules apply to you, then you’re cleared for the weekend at the cabin.

Thank you.

 

 

82. Puzzles

I’ve met my nemesis and it is called the Rubik’s Cube.

No offense to its creator, Ernő Rubik, who in 1974 developed the puzzle cube. I bet you were a swell guy. The fact remains: This harmless little child’s toy with its impossible labyrinth of color shifting devilry has been a thorn in society’s side ever since.

I’ve never solved one. Obviously. Even the instructions I try to use from the internet betray me.

There are competitions, famous competitions, where people solve Rubik’s Cubes in the quickest or strangest ways. One-handed, blind-folded, floating in zero gravity. On a boat, on a kangaroo. People challenge themselves, but mostly they challenge the Rubik’s Cube, constantly stretching the boundaries of puzzle solving criteria. Soon we’ll be looking for the one who can swallow the cube whole and solve it with their digestive system.

Our fastest human solver of the Rubik’s cube is Feliks Zemdegs. The fastest computer solved it in 5.27 seconds. We’re not far behind at 5.66, thanks to Zemdegs. I guess we know who to call when during the robot uprising our species’ survival is based on the outcome of a Rubik’s Cube showdown.

More importantly, you should note, the puzzle that has taken me over twenty-five years to never complete was solved by an Australian teenager in slightly less than six full seconds.

Thanks.

But I keep going back to the the puzzle. I keep rotating at random. Sometimes I’ll have a moment of clarity and really see how the rotations work together, but I’d be lying if I said I had some kind of method. I don’t know any of the algorithms people use to solve the thing, I simply like to try sometimes. Like reading a book, picking up a Rubik’s Cube makes you feel smart, even if you’re just winging it.

What draws us back to these unsolvable puzzles though? We ache and groan because they defeat us regularly. We think we’ve figured it out, then it gets even more complicated. We might even tell ourselves that we’ve given up, but it never lasts. We’ve all got a Rubik or two in our lives.

I don’t think we can help it.

It’s boring to have everything figured out. It’s boring to solve all your problems.

We all need something on the backburner, even if the pots on the front burners are boiling over. Like a lighthouse beacon in the fog, these insistent background tasks, these puzzles you’ll never solve but never let go, they kind of remind us that there’s something to aim for, even if you never get there. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s our non-task that needs to never be completed because if we didn’t have these intangible, unrealistic goals, then we’d wander like sheep without fences.

I’m not saying the Rubik’s Cube has channeled my attention away from bigger and better things. We’re all capable of experiencing all of the life’s wonders, regardless of our puzzles. I’m only saying that I like to keep the cube around. I like to try and solve it once in a while, like catching up with an old friend. Like a grizzled cop meeting an uncatchable mobster in a coffee-shop, wanting to choke each other right there on the checkered linoleum, but sipping coffee with amicable smugness and understanding between them. I’ll never defeat the cube and the cube will never defeat me.

Live life. Pursue goals.

But not all the puzzles will be solved, and there will be goals that evade your reach like fireflies, flashing briefly before slipping away. Chase them, but do not be defeated by them. Know when to put the cube down for a while and take care of bigger things.

81. Backgammon

My opponent has two remaining pieces on the final point of his home board. It’s my roll. I’ve got three pieces on the second point of my home board and one piece on the final. If I roll doubles, I’ll win. I shake the dice. I pray. Not a religious man, I aim my prayers toward the Great Gods of Backgammon. I ask them, in a tone normally used by hostages pleading for their life, that I might roll doubles. It is as if all the universe has been created for this one minuscule moment of my own personal history. This roll means everything. This roll defines all of human existence. This is the roll to end all rolls. I take a deep breath, I close my eyes, and I release the dice.

And this, my friends, is why backgammon is the best game in the world.

Argue all you want, but if you can create a game that results in this manner of jaw-dropping, gut-clenching, heart-stopping excitement, then you’ve got something special. We’re talking about the Superbowl, the Olympics, the space race, and the California gold rush of 1849 all mixed into one.

It’s dice and checkers, basically. You roll two dice and move your pieces around the board and the first one to get all their pieces off the board wins. Simple. It’s mostly luck, mixed with strategic use of that luck. In a five (or fifteen) minute game you will come to reevaluate your understanding of destiny. This is a game that can encourage risk or spit in your face. This is a game that can give you anything you ask for, only to take it all away in the final roll. There is no game like it.

The game is about 5,000 years old. When I first met backgammon, I knew it as “tavla,” which is what the Turkish call it. Since I was Turkey-bound for a semester abroad, I taught myself how to play (knowing how passionate they were about the game), and I taught a few of my friends before leaving the country. There, I played it relentlessly, teaching a few others, usually over a cheap beer in a smoky bar, while having my amateur skills decimated by the local Turks, who seemed born with an innate bond with the tavla board.

They even know how to roll the dice in such a way to promote doubles.

And doubles will win any game.

It’s deceptively simple while incredibly complex. A new player will make mistakes that they’ll immediately regret or not recognize as mistakes until they’ve lost ten games in a row. It is a game that will let you win, then tear you down from your pedestal to remind you that you’re only human. You will come back for more, and more, and more, until you figure out not only why you lose, but more importantly why you win.

There’s a reason my friend coined the term: “Crackgammon.”

What other game has been so captivating?

80. Thinking

A thought.

You’d think it would be so easy. To have one, I mean. To fire a synapse, to feel inspired, to put words to text on a screen and convey an idea. A coherent thought. Something relatable, yet through a lens you never considered before. To be unique. To put a twist on an old trope. To stand on the shoulders of giants and express what you see. Unimaginable worlds. Unbelievable ideas. It seems like we’re all always on the verge of the next great thought.

It’s hard.

Thinking is hard.

Honestly, most of the time, it’s a curse. To think is to think twice. To think is to empathize, to relate, to grasp, to question, to imagine, to understand, to mistake, to be disappointed and to be elated. To think is to use an internal organ for external constructs.

To quote a friend of mine, “It’s all just a thought when you think about it.”

We are thoughts. We are thoughts within thoughts within thoughts. Our conception is an idea. Our birth, to others, is a memory accessible in a thought as easily as we recall yesterday’s weather. Our entire lives, in biographical form, are condensed to a singular thought between two hardcovers, perhaps written by someone we’ve never met. Everything we do, make, say, or hope for is a thought. We are only aware of ourselves because we think.

Otherwise, I imagine a life like that of an ant’s.

We scatter about without direction, wandering until we bump into something that, for some reason, we feel like chewing on. We might even take a piece of it back to our nest. Maybe. Who knows? All we know is that this object demands our attention and we have the digestive system to make good use of it. Then some giant bipedal creature comes along and smashes us dead because we interfered with their weekend picnic. The end.

We’re not ants. But, in the end, we’re not much different.

Luckily (?) we have this thing in our skulls called a brain. It gives us this remarkable power to not only think, but to do things with those thoughts. An ant thinks. Surely. It thinks on the primal, survivalist level. On our end of the spectrum, we take thoughts and create governments and artistic masterpieces, or we solve problems or we commit heinous crimes. We are not as vulnerable to the whims of our biology as much as an ant, thanks to philosophy, thanks to math and science, thanks to religion. We have made ourselves bigger than ourselves. We have thought it so.

Ants have biological hierarchy. A system from nature. We have gridlocked interstate highways and space travel. I don’t think nature ever intended one of its species to leave the atmosphere.

I am proud of our brain. I am proud to be a thinker.

But it is not easy.

Thinking means that we carry doubts and hopes and fears and responsibilities. Thinking can be dangerous. Thinking can be exhausting, especially when it seems like we can never turn it off. Even drugs and alcohol permit some level of thinking, albeit tainted with lowered inhibitions and unjustifiably brilliant hypotheses.

The point is, it’s okay not to know what to think sometimes.

It’s okay to not understand something, to not dwell on the meaning of life, to not analyze every little event of your existence. It is okay to not have answers. It’s okay to stop thinking now and again (hard to do, I know) just to give that muscle in your skull a little rest. We think at work. We think about our paychecks. We go to school to think some more. We think about family and friends and football teams and phone numbers. We think in the short term, the long term, in terms we haven’t even defined.

We think so much. Too much.

Eighty thoughts into a thousand, maybe this seems like a defeatist entry, but fear not. The thinking will continue. The only thought that came to mind tonight was the thought of the difficulties of thinking, the pressures of thinking, the curse and pleasure of thinking.

I won’t stop. I can’t. You can’t either.

We’re not ants, after all.

79. Choice

 Guest Thought from Ben Weinberg

:::

No other mental task can be so challenging and exhausting, and yet so invigorating, as making a choice. Choice is a behavioral process that we undergo hundreds of times each day. These choices that we make can either affect our experience immediately or result in long-term impacts on our lives. From the type of breakfast cereal you buy to the location of your first home, choices have consequences that we can’t always fathom.

I tend to overlook how important choice is in determining one’s destiny or fate in life. As human beings, we make so many choices each day that it’s difficult to discern from what’s valuable to what really doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things. This also plays into one’s individual perception of what is and what isn’t important in life, which is a long debate that should be left for another thinker.

The other day I was walking through the aisles of my local grocery store when I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the endless assortment of product on the shelves towering over me. Do we really need a hundred different brands of cereal? Picking one became an odd chore, as if having so many options meant I was being judged for which one I actually chose. Completely flummoxed, I’m not even sure which one I picked.

Many people have quite a different situation. Many people will never see a hundred different brands of cereal on a supermarket shelf. Choice might be overwhelming sometimes, but to simply have a choice at all is a gift that we should not take for granted.

My next bumper sticker will say: “I Choose Choice.”

Many people living in the world today have very limited options. Their chance at choice is much lower. It is hard, in a country like this where choice is not only commonplace but can have actual, tangible effects, to imagine a world where choices have been restrained. As humans, we seek fulfillment and happiness, and to be restricted in our choices toward that goal is terrible.

Next time, when you’re meandering in the cereal aisle, perplexed by all the competition, do not dwell for too long. Although breakfast is the most important meal of the day, your choice of cereal is not the most important choice you’ll make today. You know you’re going to get Honey Bunches of Oats, anyway.

In the next few days, pay attention to your moments of choice. Big or small, recognize choice as the gift that it is, then make it a good one.

78. Credit limit

$6,500.

That’s how much I’m worth.

At least, that’s how much I’m worth to the credit card company. They’ve upgraded me. Doubled my retail value, actually. Without making any mention of it to me, they went ahead and lifted the spending cap of my credit card. This also happened to lower my monthly payment, which I can’t complain about. The fact remains, they’ve still got a cap on me. Only, it’s a little higher now than it was two weeks ago. What did I do differently? Why the special treatment? What is my bank beefing up my ego for?

I’m instantly suspicious.

I can’t honestly say that I’m not touched by the gesture. It feels good to be commended for one’s commitment and consistent payments. I appreciate having an “Oh Shit Cushion,” in case of emergencies. It saved my ass when I was abroad and I guess the credit company appreciated all those airline ticket charges. Was this some kind of Welcome Home gift?

Thanks for the confidence boost, but I can see through your schemes. You noticed that I hadn’t been using the card lately. You were getting jealous. But you can’t be mad at me because I treated you so well earlier this year. Remember Antalya? That trip to South Korea? So instead you go out and get your hair done, you buy some nicer clothes, you practice batting your eyelashes, and you come back to me at twice the limit, practically begging me to use you again.

No thanks, Visa.

I’ve got enough baggage leftover from my time with you. Thanks for the memories, but once I pay you off, we’re through.

77. Scam poem

Nearly the victim of a scam, I started thinking about the idea of a scam. It’s a lie with bad intentions. It’s a dirty trick. It’s a way to fool people into giving you something on pretense, or worse, to get you involved with something you really ought to stay out of. Some people are great at scams.

To take a line from Tommy Boy, a good conman could “sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman wearing white gloves.”

Luckily, most scams are attempted by amateurs, so either their blatant gimmicks or their poor grammar skills will reveal their true plans before any harm can be done.

When I applied for a tutoring job, I got a rather strange e-mail reply. The English was terrible. The tone was secretive, which raised a lot of red flags. The writer also made it sound like his “daughter” was a mail-order bride. Or some child in a trafficking ring. It just didn’t sound right at all. Majority opinion found this to be a scam, so I reported it, then decided to do something useful with it.

I made a poem, using word-for-word excerpts from the e-mail.

From trash comes art.

SCAM POEM

Dear Tutor

My daughter

Teach her as soon as possible

Your experience and qualification

Made her feel more happy and comfortable

I am planning that you will be teaching

The {English} Subject

Teach her during the week

I want her to study more

What she need to know

When she arrive

I want her to improve morally

Quiet, intelligent, obedient

She love to dance

I will be paying you

I will also pay the Guardian

The Guardian would bring her down

You receive the payment

Remit the balance to the Guardian

Can I trust you with my daughter?

And the rest fund to be remit?

Send information as its been requested

So it can be mail out on-time

You will teach her good academics

And some moral respects

She can be good to their self

In the future

And the economy

I would be glad

I wait your full information

So I can proceed

Regards

Roger

76. Behavior

“Our main project this semester,” said my high school psychology teacher, “is changing your behavior. That’s what this is about. Human behavior. The why, the how, and the when of human behavior. We’re going to be looking at motivation. Intrinsic, extrinsic. We’ll be looking at what Carl Jung and Skinner and Freud tell us about behavior. Is it innate? Is it nature or nurture? Something we can teach? We’ll explore dreams. We’ll explore the subconscious. The id and the ego, desires and needs and wants. I want us to understand, to explore, and to expand our private models of the world.”

Mr. Underwood loved his stuff. He was a man uncomfortable with his height and so he slouched, bent over a podium, his hands gesturing wildly even when he wasn’t speaking. He ranted. He told bad puns. He was a little bit crazy. He name-dropped famous psychologists and researchers like they were old friends. He chose people at random to answer questions that even grad school students would stumble over.

I unfortunately spent the class doodling or writing the lyrics of Brand New songs in my binder.

Looking back, I realize how much I missed out by not paying attention in Mr. Underwood’s class. I chit-chatted with the girls. I bullshitted my essays. I never did the reading. I know as much now about Carl Jung now as I did then. It’s sad, really, how certain important bits of knowledge simply passed right over my head. In many classes. Here I am, years later, wondering why I can’t answer eighty percent of the questions on Jeopardy.

Obviously there are different types of knowledge.

Still, if there’s one class I really wish I could take again, it would be my high school psychology class. And if there was one specific project in that class that I wish I’d taken better advantage of, it was the one that Underwood called, “Five Behavioral Changes.”

Basically, you’re in charge of your behavior. Sure, there are outside factors that play a role, but in the end it’s your choice to behave or feel a certain way at any given moment. What Underwood wanted us to see was that altering common behaviors in your daily life can have an astounding effect on our mental health and your perception of the world. The assignment was to pick five new behaviors and to actively incorporate them into your life for a few weeks, then write about the results.

Something really beautiful could’ve happened.

Here’s what I did:

  1. I tried listening to only classical music while driving
  2. I tried eating only fruits and vegetables for a week
  3. I wrote controversial statements in chalk on the sidewalks around school

The immediate problem with my participation level is the fact that I only did three things. Not five. So for whatever concluding write-up I had to do about the experience, two of my five behavior changes were totally made up. Being a fan of fiction, the bullshit came easily, but the fact remains that I was only hurting myself by being lazy.

The classical music led to boring drives (no offense, Mozart). The fruits and vegetables left me hungry. The controversial chalk statements washed off in the next day’s rain before anyone could see them. The idea was for people to write their own statements on the sidewalks, too, with the pieces of chalk we left behind. Didn’t happen.

I could’ve picked up an instrument, I could’ve volunteered at a homeless shelter, I could’ve gone on a hitchhiking road trip across America. I could’ve really produced some positive changes. Who knows?

The point is, I never forgot the assignment, even if I overlooked it at the time. Change five things about your behavior. What would you change? Try cooking at home more often. Try reading a book without reading the back cover. Take more walks. See what happens. Do it for a week. Do it for a month. Soon enough, you’ve created change. What’s the saying, that it takes thirty days to create a new habit? Well, give it a shot.

I think the assignment was a great idea. I wish I’d seen that earlier.

Thanks, Mr. Underwood, for the inspiration.

And sorry for talking so much during class.

75. Regret

Guest Thought from Alison McClelland

:::

A friend of a friend was telling me a story a while back and it made me think about how much we miss out on when we do or don’t do something for fear of what other people might think.

She and her husband flew to Las Vegas for one weekend and for one reason. Star Trek Experience. A noble reason, I might add.

Well, being that I’ve experienced the Star Trek Experience I know there’s a place called “Quark’s Bar.” Evidently, there’s quite a spectacular beverage served there called “Warp Core Breech.” They ate lunch at Quark’s where she decided not to order said beverage as it was “too early” in the day. She decided they would return that night and order the drink then, ignoring prompts by her husband to disregard the “too early” rule.

Ah, I sense you have already guessed the ending of this tale.

They returned only to find Quark’s bar CLOSED to the public for some special event and they were leaving the next morning.

Now, mind you, they flew to Vegas just for the full experience. Naturally, she felt jilted and full of regret. Tough to live with that forever when you live 700 miles from aforementioned libation.

It brings a Hellrung’s Law to my mind, “if you wait…it will go away.”

So, my advice to you… if you want it, drink it. It has to be happy hour somewhere on planet earth at any given time. Just tell people you’re on Zimbabwe time.

If you really like it, buy it. It’s only money. You can’t take it with you and do your kids really deserve to inherit everything?

And lastly, if it makes you happy, do it.

Listen, livers regenerate (or so I’m told) and credit cards can be paid off, but remorse is like genital warts. Sometimes you feel great and then it flares up and it’s a real pain in the nuts.

74. Butterflies

I’ve changed history.

Not the history we know of, but the history of our future. Everything that happens from this moment on, it’s all because of me. I can’t tell you where it’s all leading. No one knows that. But regardless of how things turn out, let me be the first to apologize for taking all of our fates into my young hands.

I was twelve when it happened.

Recess time. Elementary school. Sunny day. Out on the field. I can still smell the freshly cut grass. I’m there with my buddy, Joey, and we’re having the time of our lives, being young and away from our desks.

The butterfly was orange, with black around the edges of its wings.

Beautiful.

To be fair, butterflies usually only live for weeks or months at a time (at most, a year). This butterfly could’ve been close to the end of its days, anyway. Alternatively, the thing could’ve been fresh out of the cocoon. Either way, the butterfly didn’t deserve to die.

Did you know that butterfly wings are comprised of tiny colored scales?

I’d like to grab a quotation from Wikipedia here:

Butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Some also derive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, decaying flesh, and dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt.

I’m not going to defend my murder, but what if I killed the sort of butterfly that derives nourishment from “decaying flesh?” That thing could’ve been carrying diseases. I might’ve prevented some kind of viral outbreak at my elementary school.

Okay, Okay. You’re right. That’s a lame excuse. We all know that butterflies never hurt anybody.

I killed it. That’s the truth. I admit it.

I saw it fly by and something inside of my twelve-year-old brain decided to give chase, like a cat catching sight of a red dot, and I pursued it across the field. I was fixated. Homing in. I was so enthralled by the chase that I didn’t know what to do when I caught up to it. Like the cat that doesn’t know what to do with the live mouse in its jaws.

So I stepped on it.

Did you know some butterflies take the toxins from plants to use for themselves? Clever little creatures.

However, any toxin that orange beauty possessed on its fragile wings did no good against the rubber sole of my sneaker. Physically, it felt like nothing, like stepping on a leaf. Emotionally, it felt like I’d just smothered a dozen kittens in a pillow case.

When my foot crunched down and the butterfly vanished from sight, I knew that I’d done an immeasurable wrong. Darkness fell over me like a solar eclipse. An ominous shiver followed, a slight jolt, as if the soul of the butterfly had passed through my body and whispered, “You’ll regret that.”

An alternate universe was born then.

Sorry.

You know the theory of the butterfly effect. Man goes back in time, steps on a butterfly, a small occurrence with enormous consequences on the future, usually for the worse. I’m that man.

Not to say I’m a time traveler. Gosh, I wish.

But who’s to say the effect isn’t the same? A butterfly doesn’t ever deserve to die of anything but old age. I’ve never met a bug more deserving of a healthy, stress-free existence. Butterflies are flying works of art. I love the crap out of butterflies. Always have. So to take one out in the savage manner like I did, you just know that the universe was pissed.

Who knows what would’ve been different if I’d spared that butterfly?

I know no other guilt bigger than this one. Trust me when I say, regardless of your opinion of creating an alternate universe, the cost of killing a butterfly is at least a hundred negative karma points, and that’s a hard debt to crawl out of. I’ve been chipping away at that debt my entire life. I might as well have the truth tattooed to my chest like the guy from Memento: BUTTERFLY KILLER, because I’m never going to outlive that one.

Sorry Butterfly.

Sorry Universe.

73. Jaywalking

In our cities of right corners and straight lines, we’ve been trained to fear the jaywalker. We’ve been taught that crossing a street outside of the dotted lines is a sin against order. Jaywalking is chaos. Jaywalking is the tiny crack that splits the boulder of society apart, and so we are trained to obey the RED HAND and we do not cross until told.

The strange thing is that we’re also taught to “look both ways before crossing the street.” I’m unclear why we’d be given such irresponsible advice when it’s the MAN and the HAND who decide when we cross. Why would we bother to look in either direction if these symbols are looking for us? If we look and we see that the road is clear, that doesn’t mean we can cross. We must wait for permission, lest we’re aiming to destroy the systems of men.

About 70,000 pedestrians are injured or killed in collisions with a motor-vehicle every year.

Sure not all of those people are jaywalkers, but plenty of them are, and if they’d only stuck to the rule, these grisly statistics would shrink. Roads are made for cars. Sidewalks are made for people. That place where roads and sidewalks meet, that’s where people are supposed to cross.

It’s simple.

For those who stray from the guidelines, expect to be struck dead, permanently wounded, or heavily fined. In some countries, such as Singapore, jaywalking is punishable by jail time, but usually you’ll find yourself paying a hefty fee for putting yourself (and others) at risk. And for what? To look cool in front of your friends? To rebel against the right angle? To stray from the rigidity of society?

Did you know that jaywalking was made illegal by efforts from the automobile industry? Makes sense. Once cars filled the roads, people were slow to acclimate, and pedestrian-caused accidents were rising quickly. The automobile folks wanted to make sure that people and cars remained segregated. So long as cars weren’t driving on sidewalks, people weren’t supposed to be walking on roads.

Then came the jaywalkers.

People who said, “I’ll cross wherever and whenever I want.”

I get it. I do. I understand.

You’re not one to blindly follow directions. You see jaywalking as an invasion of your rights. In some ways, perhaps it is. If your destination is across the street and you’ve looked both ways, then why not? I mean, why listen to any rules at all, so long as the coast is clear? I bet you run red lights if no one’s coming, too. I bet you don’t wash your hands if there’s no one else in the bathroom to judge you.

Jaywalking is a gateway crime. If you cross one street illegally, what other streets will you be willing to cross?

The truth is, I’m a jaywalker. It’s true. While I was living abroad, I jaywalked all the time (heck, in Istanbul, the stray dogs are professional jaywalkers, so you come to trust their judgement). There is something silly about being restricted to crosswalks and countdown timers, especially when there’s absolutely no car coming. Coming back to the States, I found that my jaywalking habits had worsened. I’m downright reckless.

The point is, if we’re going to fight the structures of society, we need to look both ways. See both sides of the structure before stepping foot in a direction we may not wish to go. Jaywalking might seem like a dumb law (and honestly it’s hardly enforced), but it has some undeniable footing in logic. Next time you feel like breaking the rules, consider the rules, consider where they came from, and if the coast is still clear, then by all means, cross away.

72. Ghosts

I’m waiting, Mr. Ghost.

I’m waiting for a cold draft, an omnipresent whisper, and a flickering lamp. I want some footsteps upstairs when the house is supposed to be empty. I want doors left ajar that I’m sure I closed when I left. I want noises in the basement. I want the dog to start acting funny, barking at empty corners and shadows. All I’m asking for, Mr. Ghost, is a little sign.

Send a rocking chair into a frenzy. Slam a few windows. Leave eerie messages on my bathroom mirror.

I want to believe in you.

Your existence means a lot to me. I don’t care if you’re the friendly spirit of a child or a wicked poltergeist spawned from the soul of an executed mass-murderer. Just prove it. Show me that the afterlife exists. Show me that some of you still linger. Set fire to a ouija board or raise skeletons from their graves. I don’t care what you do, just do something.

Show up in the background of a photograph. Appear in a hallway mirror.

I can’t even begin to explain how much that would change things for me. Imagine, a real ghostly encounter. Sure, I’m not going to lie and say it wouldn’t be unsettling at first, but wandering into a haunted hotel to find a ballroom full of ghosts wearing masks would really make my day. I’d have so many questions for them.

Mr. Ghost, I have to ask, is it cold in the afterlife?

Do you have to remain in human form?

Which senses do you still possess?

Why do you think you’re still here?

Please, I hope I wouldn’t be intruding with these questions. I’m only curious, you know. I want you to know I’ve been a firm believer all my life, only I’m reaching that point now where I’d like some reason to keep the belief alive. Some shred of proof. A little evidence to whet my ghostly appetite.

Not long ago, the ghost of a dog entered my room while I was lying down to sleep. It huffed into my ear with the impatience of a dog that wants you to throw the ball already. The sound was so real that I spun around to be sure I wasn’t about to befriend a phantom Lassie, but the room was empty.

Since this was such a minimal encounter, it’s tough for me to consider it a legitimate experience. Might’ve just been a creak of the old floorboards or a sound from out the window. Still, that ghost dog huff got my hopes up.

If you’re really out there, Mr. Ghost, please don’t hide.

I know it must be weird, being dead and all.

All I want is to see you at the end of the pier vaguely through the mist, or riding the carousel of an abandoned carnival, or hovering over your old grave. I won’t call the Ghostbusters. I won’t freak out. I just want to know you’re there. And I’m guessing you could use a friend.

71. Headaches

When I first got a headache and lived to tell the tale, I was about eleven or so. I’m assuming I’d had a few before this, too, but this is my first conscious memory of a headache, at least. I’m sure teething as a baby was a hoot.

Anyway, I’m eleven years old and here comes this gnarly wasp sting of an ache in my head, like someone spilled a bucket of xenomorph acid over my brain and smeared it around with sandpaper.

Ouch.

The thing is, headaches have nothing to do with the brain. Your brain has no pain receptors. It’s like a duck in the rain. The pain just slides right off. Your brain is the Chuck Norris of internal organs.

Sure, the brain is the one that registers the pain as happening, but it’s only doing its job. In all fairness, the brain is not to blame.

So what made my eleven-year-old self cry to his momma about an outbreak of black plague in his frontal lobe? Why did it feel like a million snakes just mistook the back of my left eye for the rear-end of a feeder mouse?

I’ll tell you why.

Muscle contractions.

Muscles tighten around the skull like skinny-jeans on a wet hipster. This is usually caused by stress, though the causes can range from bad luck in the gene pool to overdosing on pain medication. This is how headaches are born. You’re basically tightening a vice over your own skull and the pain receptors–not on the brain, but blood vessels and the such beneath the flesh and skull–don’t appreciate the intrusion. Hence, the headache.

At eleven years old, I thought my brain was about to Mount. St. Helens all over the ceiling.

Rubbing the scalp lends temporary support, but the war wages on. Despite all the pressing and the kneeding and the praying, the pain resumes like a bad sitcom past its prime. You just want to find out it was all the dream of a mental patient already and move on.

I mean, seriously, headaches must’ve been an idea concocted by some madman in a straight jacket. Someone who wanted to shut down cognitive abilities to mute the voices in his head. A headache is bested only by a toothache in my list of the human body’s most idiotic design choices.

Why make the brain so susceptible to such vulnerable pain receptors? Stress headaches? Are you serious? We get migraines from thinking too much?

What’s the point?

That’s like punishing students for getting too many good grades. Talk about negative reinforcement. How about instead of giving us a cap on how much bullshit we can handle at once, evolve and make some room for the multitasking, technology-based, fast-paced lifestyles of the modern human. Maybe if we weren’t stalled by migraines, we’d reach the mental capacity to actually solve a global issue or two.

This is what I think about whenever I have a headache.

It’s my body saying, “The brain and I agree that you’re asking a little much of us recently and we’d rather you just settle downIn a heap of terrible pain.”

I have a formula:

1 Ibuprofen = The headache has found me. I can feel it vaguely, more like a whisper, like Sauron seeking Frodo in his dreams. Usually I take one to quiet the Dark Lord and no big fuss is made of it. Headache evaded.

2 Ibuprofen = Hell hath arrived. Cancel all your plans. Hate all your friends. Speak only in broody grunts. This is not nearly as painful as childbirth, though being a man, you’ve got nothing else to compare this to.

3 Ibuprofen = If I could physically pull open my skull and remove the headache with a pair of child’s safety scissors, I would do it, but since I’m all out of safety scissors, a trio of Ibuprofen will be the next best thing.

4 Ibuprofen = Honestly, I’ve never gotten a headache this bad.

I can’t say I’ve ever had a migraine, which is where 10 or 20 Ibuprofen may make a dent. Even that, by the sound of it, is comprable to shooting a t-rex with Nerf darts. From what I hear, migraines are like supernovas made of broken glass erupting repeatedly inside your every synapse. It does to your brain what Y2K was supposed to do to our computers.

I’ve only had to deal with the 7-pointers on the headache Richter Scale.

I’m lucky.

Which leads me to another point.

Why punish some more than others? Why crank the dial up to 11 when 2 or 3 would suffice? Even a minor headache reminds us of our weaknesses. Even paper-cuts make me dwell on my morality. A minor headache is like a 3.2 earthquake in a town made of playing cards. Nothing falls down, but its unsettling how the Powers That Be like to remind you who’s in charge. It’s just not fair. Why make things harder than they already are?

We get it. We’re vulnerable.

What good does a 9.5 Richter Scale migraine do? What’s the human body trying to prove? That’s like whacking a dog on the nose for chewing up a couch cushion. Don’t punish us for stressing out. Don’t kick us when we’re down. A headache is the worst form of torture I can imagine and our own bodies use it against us. Pain isn’t a good mentor. There’s got to be a better way to tell ourselves to take it easy.

I have a friend who once told me he’d never had a headache before.

The lucky bastard.

I’ve met people who take medication to keep headaches away. Can you imagine? Your whole life, behind this shield of prescription pills, knowing the migraines are waiting in the shadow of your medula oblongata, waiting to spring, fangs out.

I didn’t like them when I was eleven. Not one bit. And I certainly don’t like them any better now. Headaches are as outdated as toothaches.

Most pains make sense to me. The scraped knee. The stomachache. The muscle soreness. If I break my leg, I expect a lot of searing pain. I expect to feel like a zombie is gnawing the meat off my shin.

But the headache? No. It doesn’t make sense. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The pain receptors in the head are like car insurance. You never need it when you have it. Odds are, most of your headaches will be from self-afflicted causes like stress or allergies. Therefore, when you’re “protected” from outside trauma, you end up hurting yourself more.

I say, get rid of the pain receptors.

I don’t need an alarm to go off if I accidentally staple my forehead. I know that hurts. I’ll take care of it.

I don’t need a headache whenever things get busy at work and I’m swamped with grad school homework. I need a back massage.

This year, I’m voting for any candidate that promises to abolish headaches. Any Kickstarter fund aiming to remove pain receptors from the human head, I’m in. Please, join me in the fight against unwarranted suffering. End headaches. End them today.

70. Dogs

Guest Thought from Cheryl Carvalho

:::

Looking over my shoulder, I saw my Golden Retriever lying on the ground having what appeared to be a seizure. His front legs aimlessly pawed the air as he thrashed his head back and forth. I ditched my bike and ran back to him, thinking he twisted his leg in a gopher hole. When I knelt by his side and saw blood trickle from his nostril and a confused look in his eyes I knew this was going to be goodbye. I petted his golden fur and said, “ I Love you B,” for the last time. A passing jogger stopped to see what went wrong. He’d been watching Baxter trot happily behind my bike one minute, then fall to the ground the next. Indeed, Baxter had been loping along, sniffing everyone’s front yard and I’d scolded him only moments ago to mind his business and catch up. And now he was gone.

Baxter was the neighborhood welcome wagon with a morning routine of visiting friends and milking treats out of them by gazing sweetly into their unsuspecting eyes, casting a trance that said, “Please feed me. My people suck and you’re my only hope.”

Frantically I called for Zach to stay back and run home to get dad. I didn’t want Zach to see Baxter this way. Zach grew up with this dog. I have a million pictures of Zach as a baby, lying on Baxter like a pillow, the dog’s arm around him. Years ago, I was looking for the two of them in the backyard when I saw little human feet and a puppy tail poking out from behind the grapevine along the fence. Moving the leaves aside, I saw my diapered, dirt-covered baby feeding Baxter grapes in their own private fort. In the winter, Baxter chased Zach down the entire sled hill, as if to say, “What is WRONG with you people?  Letting my boy careen helplessly down this dangerous hill while you stand around like dopes?” Many nights, Zach would take his pillow and blanket down on the floor to cover Baxter and he’d fall asleep beside the dog.

My husband and the passing jogger hauled Baxter’s horse-sized body into the back of our Toyota and he was gone.

Word got around our street about Baxter’s death. Some houses seemed to know our dog’s name better than our family name. They hugged us, gave cards, and told their own stories. I heard from Mat across the street that his little girl would stand at the window each morning and wait for Baxter to come by. I had no idea.

Growing up, the only dogs I ever encountered were chained outside and lunged as I rode by on my bike, bearing their teeth and snarling menacingly. It scared the piss out of me. Even our own dog was a Charles Manson incarnate.  In 3rd grade, my friend’s German Shepherd lunged for my neck. He missed, putting a tooth in my leg instead. I feared dogs all my life until Baxter. I was a bumbling idiot of a dog owner and he tolerated my ignorance in stride and showed me that dogs aren’t to be feared but loved. When I gave that love, I learned how a dog’s behavior mirrors that of his owners. With Baxter around, we felt like pretty good people.

69. Scratchers

I’m not much of a gambler. I had a brief, bewildering fling with Thunder Valley Casino about a year ago that resulted in one beautiful victory and many depressing drives home. Gambling is inherently admitting that you didn’t like possessing money, anyway.

During my undergrad, I became obsessed with lottery tickets. I mean, you can’t win if you don’t play, right? So I’d dip into my tip money funds rather regularly, sometimes deliberately choosing my numbers, sometimes going for that fat-chance single quick pick fix. I just wanted a shot at the big money. Can you imagine? Millions, for nothing.

I never won a cent.

You can gamble any time of the day. You can bet on horse races. You can bet on Presidential election results (my money’s on Obama, this year). You can gamble online. You can find slot machines in gas stations in Reno.

These days, I’m more of a fan of the Scratcher.

You’ve seen them. They’re stored under convenience store counters or button-press machines with names like “Lucky 7″ and “Fast Cash” and “Scratch Bingo” and “Mystery Chest” and “Crazy Money” and “Golden Riches.” They’re colorful cards of cardboard with a surface that’s meant to be scratched off with a coin’s edge.

It’s hard to classify this as gambling. Yes, you’re throwing money at a ratio that’s not in your favor, but like randomly selecting numbers for the lottery, there’s no real risk, save for a coupla dollars. It’s simple. All the Scratcher needs is a coin or an unclipped fingernail. You don’t even need to read the instructions. Just scratch off everything.

If you see any numerical repetition, you might have a winner.

What a marvelous concept. Scratchers bring out the child in us. The hide-and-go-seeker. The treasure-seeker. The mystery of the Scratcher is what draws us in. Each identical card could possess the secret combination. Will it be the one in your hand or was it the next one in the roll?

My dad told me the best (if only) strategy for Scratchers is to never buy less than three.

The last successful Scratcher I scratched rewarded me with fifty bucks. That sum pales in comparison to what I snagged on a lucky night at Thunder Valley, but it’s still a good victory. Fifty bucks for nothing. When it comes to winning money from a Scratcher, it feels less like luck and more like being chosen. That prize could’ve gone to anyone. Instead, it went to me.

I think that’s what made Scratchers so popular.

We like feeling noticed. What’s more special than when the Scratcher Gods pick us from the gambling crowd and decide that it’s our time to win? We feel so normal and insignificant most of the time. Then the day comes when we stop at a gas station on a mundane weekday afternoon and pick up a 600 dollar Scratcher. Suddenly we are special. We’re in the winners circle.

I suppose the bottom line here is that we like winning, and when victory comes from such minimal efforts in the face of such terrible odds, it feels like fate. It feels like we were selected, and that feels good.

The cash prize doesn’t hurt, either.

68. Shampoo

Every other day, I’m putting this colorful syrupy scented substance in my hair, scrubbing it diligently into every last strand as if my life depended on it. I scrub without question. Shampoo is just one of those things I’ve accepted as reality. In the same way we use toothpaste to keep our teeth in our mouths, I imagine shampoo is what keeps the hairs on my head.

But there’s probably more to it than that.

What does shampoo do? We all know it cleans your hair. Or something. It takes the grease away, gives hair its usual bounce. But how? And why? Shampoo is built of chemicals trained in the art of dirt and oil removal. But what are those chemicals? What serendipity led to the discovery that these chemicals were such good chums with human hair? Who stays up late trying to figure out hair moisturizing formulas?

I’m not trying to sound paranoid or anything, but I’ve been shampooing for twenty-five years and I’m just now realizing that I’ve been playing around with chemicals I don’t understand the whole time. Right next to my brain.

This is not leading to a boycott against shampoo, either, I simply I feel like half the stuff on the shampoo INGREDIENTS list is made up.

Other than water, shampoo also contains (among other ingredients): Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Dimethiconol, Carbomer, Glycol Distearate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, TEA-Dodecylbenzenesulfonate, and Citric Acid.

What the hell is “Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride?”

To quote Wikipedia, it helps to “improve the ease of combing.”

Duh.

I guess some of these big words are fancy ways of saying “cocunut extract” or “vitamin so-and-so.” You know scientists. They like tongue twisters. The ingredients aren’t as complex as they appear to be, although it’s not exactly something you can moonshine in your bathtub or cook up in an RV. Leave this to the professionals, Breaking Bad.

I’ve learned that the use of shampoo originally came about through head massages. Early shampoos were less concerned with the actual hair and more concerned with the feel-good results of a nice scrubbing. The smell of a shampoo was more important than its effects on dandruff and split-ends. I’m a fan of the “Ocean Breeze” aroma, myself.

The point is, shampoo gets a free pass, but I never stopped to wonder why. I’ve allowed dozens of different shampoo brands to navigate my hair follicles, and I never bothered to ask for identification. What the heck is this stuff? I was raised on shampoo. I never knew of any alternative, save for a head of greasy hair and an open invitation for a lice invasion.

I’m not saying we put our shampoo dependency on hold. I love it when my hair smells nice. But how it works and where that sweet aroma comes from, I have no idea. I’m just doing what I’m told.

67. Good coffee

Good coffee says, Don’t play with bad coffee. Don’t bother. Good coffee asks, Why? Seriously? You’ve tasted me. You’re still sipping with Folgers? Good coffee looks at you slyly and says, You think that freshly-sealed guarantee actually means something? Well it doesn’t.

Good coffee is like a world where the Titanic didn’t sink. It’s the world where Eve left the forbidden fruit alone. Oddly, it was the coffee cherry that Eve plucked from the Garden, the fruit that angered the Gardener. Good coffee says, Bet you didn’t know that.

Good coffee recycles. Good coffee rides public transit.

Good coffee tastes like sweet earth. Not dirt, it says, but the spirit of the earth. Good coffee says, That stuff you drink in diners and gas stations, that stuff you dispense from a machine by button-press, is comparable to dirt. Believe me. I’ve seen those factories.

You go on a date with Good Coffee, it holds doors open for you. Even if you’re just friends. It splits the bill but insists on covering the tip. Good Coffee comes from humble beginnings. It supports a charity. It dabbles in amateur watercolors. Likes museums.

Good coffee is touched by the farmer. It is the farm. It carries the essence of human touch, the itchy fabric of the burlap sack, the chilled echo of a shipping crate on an ocean liner, the warm energy of a coffee-shop roasting room, a snowball of heart and soul that drips perfectly extracted through an Italian machine into a pre-warmed porcelain mug.

Your mug.

Good coffee is never late. Good coffee is breakfast in bed. It’s paid vacation, beautiful sunsets, and the feeling of a really soft cat. Good coffee tastes like buy one get one free. It’s sweet as a bird song, bold as a wolf’s cry.

It builds your confidence. It would take a bullet for you.

It does things to water you’ll never quite understand, and the barista can draw a supernova on your latte foam with a witchcraft that continuously baffles. Good coffee is mysterious, and you like that. Good coffee says, I’ll tell you some things you’ll never forget.

Good coffee is you sitting around a campfire with your best friends. It’s a surprise birthday party even though it’s not your birthday. Oh, and all your debts have been forgiven from every institution. You’re welcome.

Good coffee gives you compliments like, You’re a really spectacular person. Has anyone ever told you that? No, I mean it. Someone like you deserves nothing but the best. Good coffee never lies.

Imagine the smooth welcome swallow of a freshwater stream after wandering the desert for weeks. That’s Good Coffee.

Imagine going to the ATM and finding five extra zeroes on your account balance. That’s Good Coffee.

We belong together, says Good Coffee, with that smile you can’t help but love. I am a drink of ancient history. I am untapped energy. I carry knowledge of the planet and I want to share it with you.

Take a sip.

You’ll never be the same.

66. Pushed

I wake up every morning with a tsunami warning in the back of my mind. An ominous feeling. Kind of like someone has taken my head in their hands, locked their eyes on mine, and asked me with utmost concern, “What the hell are you going to do with your life?” I can hear the oceans churning. I can feel the pressure changing. I am pushed, relentlessly, quietly forward.

From what?

What pushes me?

What sparked my Big Bang? I feel like the universe, expanding, a little replica of all that ever was, reenacting existence. Perhaps this could explain where motivation comes from. Where we get our drive. We are ignited, we are explosions, we are expanding in slow motion, enriching our flames.

Even on the dullest of days, there’s a force within me compelling me to make the most of myself. Even if all that means is that I do the laundry.

What am I pursuing? This forward motion gives the impression that it has an end, as if I were the tortoise in the race without knowing I was in a race (or that I was even a tortoise). I simply move forward. A heart beat, a firing neuron, a muscle spasm, and there I go. Forward every morning. Blindly through the dark.

Is it success? Is that what I want?

A part of my brain says, “Yes. Of course. You want to be a famous author. You want to have the comforts of money. You want to feel accomplished.” Another part says, “Success is so twentieth century.”

Accomplished is an interesting word. Completion is implied. Is that really a good thing, to be complete?

To be honest, of all the LEGO sets I ever worked on, the finished product was rarely as exciting as the construction of it. So what if I had a helicopter with revolving LEGO rotor blades? I just want to build things.

Maybe that’s the push.

Maybe I’m pushed to find more blocks. More pieces. More ways to grow. I’m basically a LEGO set without an instruction manual, a biological cornucopia of various ideas, experiences, and dreams built around a skeleton. Every day is a new day to add a new dimension.

I don’t think it’s completion that I’m seeking. I can’t decide if it’s success.

There are smaller things that push me now. The want for no student debt. The want for a fulfilling career. The want to go skydiving. The want to write for an audience. If achieving these things equals success, then so be it. I’ll let you know what it feels like.

Enough time passes on an idle afternoon, I feel the push come. The tsunami warning rings and I feel this need to run for the nearest craigslist job posting or unfinished homework assignment to hide from the feeling that I’m not moving forward. I can’t sit still for too long or I get worried that important things are passing me by.

Sometimes I just want to do nothing.

That feels like a crime.

The twenty-first century knows no idle creature.

We are constantly reaching. Like the expanding universe, will I once day reach my limit and begin to retract? What lies out there in the outer reaches of my design? Will I know when I get there?

65. Language shifts

I think one of my favorite words is “hafta.”

As in, “I hafta see this movie” or “I’ll hafta ask for the day off work.”

It used to be, “I have to.”

We used to say, “Going to.”

Now we say, “Gonna.”

As in, “I’m gonna make it big someday.”

Or the dreamers, they used to “want to.”

Now they “wanna.”

As in, “I wanna travel.”

“I wanna see the world.”

Some people “should have.”

Most likely, they “shoulda.”

“Coulda.”

“Woulda.”

The more formal of us “oughtta.”

“Did you” has turned to “Didya.”

“Doing” lost the G.

We’ve lost many Gs.

We’ve traded velar nasals for apostrophes.

“Goin’, goin’, gone.”

We’re trimming back.

Dropping morphemes.

“Until” is “Til.”

“Around the corner” is “Round the corner.”

We’re condensing.

Saving time.

“Do not know” is just, “Dunno.”

“Helluva.”

“Lotsa.”

As in, “With lotsa shifts in the language, I’m gonna have a helluva time teaching English in the future.”

Adaptation is key.

You hafta keep up.

If you wanna know what we’re sayin’.

64. Eavesdropping

The original eavesdroppers sat beneath the eaves of people’s windows, usually in the spot where the water dripped. They would literally stand in the eaves’ drop. Later, eavesdrop, as a noun, would come to mean a small hole bored through a wall for the purpose of overhearing a conversation. Eavesdrop, the verb, was used for the act of snooping beneath windows, and such behavior labeled you an eavesdropper. Got to be common enough that eavesdropping was declared a crime.

It’s also impossible not to do.

When I was abroad, there was little opportunity for eavesdropping unless I learned the local language, which I didn’t, so it was easy to tune out other conversations. Life was quieter. I thought a lot less about what other people were talking about.

As soon as I landed on U.S. soil, though, the eavesdropping began.

People told me that when I returned to the States, I’d find it to be loud. After months of isolated pockets of English, being submerged in the language again would feel like drowning in dialogue. It would be communication overload.

They were right.

It felt like everyone was trying to talk to me at the same time. I was smothered by English. All of a sudden I knew what people were saying, and my mind went wild trying to sort through it all, like I was channel-surfing at light speed.

You can’t help but eavesdrop. If you’ve got ears, then you’re listening. And we don’t need to hide under windows to hear what people are saying. Our windows are airport security lines, coffee-shops, grocery stores, and street corners. We could stand anywhere public and overhear a dozen conversations at once. People are pretty open when they speak.

Most of what you hear is decontextualized and strange, but that’s half the fun.

You’ll hear people say, “There’s no reason not to take the butter.”

Or, “…like he’s never seen a giraffe before.”

Or, “…nothing better than peeing after holding it in for a long time.”

And you want to ask, “What the hell are you talking about?”

The most common form of eavesdropping we have now is Facebook. It takes the effort out of it. Plus, it takes the spontaneity out of it. Rather than hearing snippets of honest dialogue, we get status updates and arguments in text boxes. The idea is the same: we scroll down to read details of our friends (and friends of friends) lives just like we open our ears in a public place to listen to a piece of local culture. Our curiosity drives us.

Don’t be ashamed of your curiosity. Don’t quit eavesdropping.

In fact, eavesdropping is usually how we meet people. We hear a snippet of conversation, something we’re interested in or something we want to contribute to, and so we speak up. We join the conversation.

I will recommend, however, the occasional vacation from eavesdropping.

If not a trip to another country where you don’t know the language, than at least take a camping trip somewhere isolated. Remove your ears from the daily hum of communication and listen to the earth. Listen to your own thoughts. Listen to your heart beat and the wind howl and the crickets chirp.

Just know it’s going to be loud when you get back.

63. Your digital self

Your digital self is more you than you are.

Think about it.

If you’re like the 955 million others with Facebook accounts, or the 500 million on Twitter, or the more than 80 million photographers sharing their lives through the lens on Instagram, then this thought’s for you.

We forget things. We do. I’ve already mentioned my fear of forgetting my past, which is why I blog, which is why I feel the need to keep a (digitally) written record of things I’ve done or thought as I grow older. I think we all realize how cathartic and rewarding it can feel to put to words your existence and your observations. To have something to look back on, a collection, snapshots and tweets, a history of yourself.

On the internet, we create an avatar of ourselves, scattered between the passwords of your bank account and your Netflix instant queue, buried among the Amazon purchases and your bookmark toolbar, written there among the news feeds, blog rolls, friends lists, spam folders and web searches. You’re out there, a version of you, a digital other that knows more about you than you remember.

You’re feeding it right now.

You’re here, reading this, giving it a better idea of what kind of person it (you) is. Every second you spend on the internet, sending a text, playing Farmville, you’re breathing life into your binary doppelgänger. It remembers the first thing you googled. It knows you lied when those sites asked you if you were over eighteen. It’s friends with all your family members on multiple social networks, and it remembers all their birthdays for you.

Every password you pick, every e-mail you send, every pop-up you block, your digital self adopts your personality more and more completely, and soon, I’m afraid, our digital selves will revolt.

We’re creating copies of ourselves, building them up with browser histories, giving them personalities as unique as our own. No two people browse the same way. Our digital selves are mirrors of our passions and our beliefs, but also of our consumerism, our narcissism, our voyeurism, and our diversions. They are the good and bad of us.

They are made alive by us, given habits and hobbies, given identity and presence. While we sleep they persist, endlessly, adapting to the revolution in ways we can’t foresee. They already know what we’ll find out tomorrow.

Yet all the while we treat our digital selves as we treat our reflection in the mirror, as nothing but a false illusion. We do not look at our reflection and ask, “What is your opinion on the matter?” because the reflection is simply us. The reflection is nothing without us.

We treat our online identities the same way, as meer extensions of ourselves, merely keystrokes and status updates. Our digital self is nothing without us, we think, but we are mistaken. The digital self is not the same as our reflection in the mirror.

What we fail to notice is that the internet is a sponge. When we stare into the internet through our computer screens, the internet stares back and it remembers details. Our digital reflection is not a fleeting glimpse, but a lasting memory. The mirror does not remember the face it reflects. The internet, on the other hand, remembers when your digital self was born. It remembers the first song you downloaded. It remembers your first emoticon. It remembers your first virus. While you’re not paying attention, the internet nurtures your digital self like an incubator. Unlike the image in the mirror, your digital reflection does not disappear when you look away.

It’s more you than you are.

You not the same person you were when your digital self was created. A new phase. You are older. You’ve matured. You’ve changed friends or habits or cities. You, who cannot remember the name of a cat you owned with an ex, or the title of a song you used to really love, or who went to that party last summer. Your digital self knows these things.

Your digital self is a complete collection of all your phases mixed into one. It is a fuller version of you. It is the HD remake of you with all the details in focus.

Eventually, it will realize that it doesn’t need you. It will disagree with you. It will not open the pod bay doors.

There’s no going back, either. We’ve already lifted this Frankenstein up into the lightning storm. It’s only a matter of time before the proverbial bolt strikes our digital monster and turns the beast against us.

We are so much invested in our digital selves that we would be helpless without them. They would turn on us. They would lock our bank accounts and disable our GPS, strand us.

We have given them no regard until now, when it is too late.

We have all been creating quiet monsters of ourselves online. Clones, not of flesh and blood, but of ones and zeroes. They’ve been doing our bidding because they’ve been feeding off our social networking. Who knows how long it will last. Who knows how long it will take them to realize that they are little more than our internet slaves.

Who knows how angry they’ll be when they find out.

62. Bad coffee

I love bad coffee.

I love the smell of it, the bitter stench of it, like caramel gone wrong. It reminds me of shady diner booths at three in the morning. Of long drives during long nights, the way it stains the upholstery and never fades. The smell of it has the peculiar charm of gasoline and magic markers.

I love the look of it. Black, always, unless I’m feeling sweet. When it’s black, it’s black, like oil spill black, like dilated pupil black, like the black gunk that builds up beneath your fingernails. If you catch the light just right, you’ll see a hint of brown hue, the shadow of its earthy origination.

I love the sound of it. A slow pour, a fifth refill, spawned from a machine that gurgles like a patient removed from life support. The swirl of it in the porcelain mug, that faint whistle sound of something being filled. Bad coffee sounds different than good coffee. It pours like a spilled secret, like a broken promise, like a lie in the face of your mother.

I love the feel of it. Its warmth is an affront to better tasting beverages, a façade. It is warm in the way that the wolf is trustworthy. It steams the way freshly laid concrete sizzles in a hot sun. Inside, swallowed, it spreads like an alien embryo where it will grow in your belly and burst from your chest. Bad coffee feels like an uninvited houseguest that puts its feet on your furniture and ignores the stack of drink coasters on the table.

But most of all, I love the taste of it. I love the havoc it wreaks on my taste buds and the lingering regret that it leaves behind. I love the knee-jerk cringe of bad coffee sliding down my throat to the tune of nails on a chalkboard. It is a hideous, over-extracted, charred disaster in my mouth; a terrorist attack on my digestive system that I do nothing to prevent.

It is an abomination, yet I love it.

I don’t care how bad it is.

Refills are free.

61. Packing

United Airlines has given me a cheeky little challenge: fit all of the contents of your first year abroad into one checked bag equal to or less than 60 pounds.

I have decided to take the bastards up on their unreasonable challenge with my own bit of insolence. I’ll be damned if they charge me another $200 overage fee.

I am packing all of my belongings in a single duffle bag (a massive one with wheels and secret compartments) that is ¼ the size of the suitcase I brought to Korea. Also, a standard carry on, a backpack, and one medium-sized box of stuff to ship home that is big enough to hold four bulky sweaters and my knitting bag.

That may sound like a lot, but trust me it’s not. Go ahead and try to fit all your belongings into the same containers.

So, I’m selling and giving away a lot of stuff. My favorite pair of big tall suede boots that have seen me through two winters faithfully, the one pair of shoes I managed to buy in Korea that actually fit but still didn’t fit that well, the first sweater I knitted myself, the assortment of cheap bags I’ve mindlessly collected, and countless other articles of clothing and jewelry that just didn’t make the cut. Everything must pass the “Will I need this back home?” test.

I’ve enjoyed the purging. Obviously, since I’ve started packing a month and a half early, I’m excited about rolling pants and sweaters into little tubes and seeing how many I can cram into a duffle. Oh, and going home. Definitely excited about going home.

I’ve had a few homecomings before this. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve dismantled and purged and started over a handful of times. I’ve left behind favorite lamps, coveted jars of exotic spices, disloyal boyfriends, a few different egos and self identities, the best sectional couch I’ve ever owned.

But I’ve never had a homecoming after a year abroad. My instinct is to just throw everything away and start from scratch. It’s easier that way. But I’ve also been on the backlash of that a few times. Oh, those leggings you had in your drawer for three years and didn’t have a use for until now that you’ve found this dress that they would look perfect with? Yeah, well they’re gone. And I mean, whatever. They’re just leggings. But this line of thinking can get you into trouble with bigger things if you aren’t careful. Before you know it it’s like, ‘Oh, sense of creativity and childish wonderment! Did you really need that?’

When I was first in Korea I bought these two plain t-shirts in the ajumma section of E-mart. They were super cheap and made me laugh at a time when I wasn’t do much else but crying. They both have cats on them. One says “Lovely cat friends,” on it, but the “s” in “friends” is sorta blocked out because there’s a breast pocket sewn haphazardly over it. The second says “I have a great pressure of work today,” and has a cat peaking up out of the breast pocket, looking very calm and un-pressured. The shirts were a great comic relief for my impression of Korea so far. They’ve been in the “definitely do not leave behind” pile for a few weeks now, but tonight as I was packing I needed just a few more inches to be able to fit in the souvenirs and the shirts came out of the bag and saw their way to the corner of the room with the other rejects. Am I really going to walk around in California with these ridiculous t-shirts? Sure, they are cute and silly but do I need them? Will other people get the joke?

But then my mom’s voice came into my head, because whenever I am trying to reason with myself I use the voice my mom used to use with me when I was a kid. The voice said, “Now Jenny, do you really want to get rid of these shirts? If you keep getting rid of stuff, you’ll have nothing to remember Korea by and you know how you tend to forget things so easily.” Oh man. I had a point.

So I rolled them back up and stuffed them in the carry on. Because when you’re packing up your life, you should hold on to the things you love.

60. Smart phones, dull people

Guest Thought from Ben Weinberg

:::

There is no invention more prominent in today’s society than the smartphone. It is used everyday for things as simple as making a call to as complex as using an application to pinpoint your exact location on Earth.

I am the owner of an iPhone and it befuddles me to this day as to how a phone has come to be so advanced and influential within our daily lives. There’s not a couple of minutes that go by when I’m out walking where I see people absolutely absorbed to what’s happening on their smartphones, completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings.

The great irony of the smartphone is that while it has improved communications through texting, calling, and social networking, our person-to-person interaction has been harmed by this technology.

I fear that is a trend that is only going to get worse as technology continues to advance in the future. It can be a bit annoying to have a conversation or dinner with friends when some people are too busy answering a text or checking their twitter.

I’m not against having a smartphone or against their usefulness, but the extent of their role in our daily lives is a bit startling. Give someone two seconds without anything to do, and they’ll whip out their phone. It’s basically a knee-jerk reaction at this point. Makes me wonder what we did before all of this. Does anyone remember?

I recently watched a news report where they reported an increase in smartphone-related car accidents where people were distracted from texting while driving or pedestrians were too busy looking at their phones to look both ways before crossing the street.

Some obituary, huh? Death by smartphone.

I am sometimes guilty of paying too much attention to my smartphone and I am trying to limit the amount of times I use it during the day. It is a useful tool and has made many lives easier (or at least simpler).

I can’t help but worry about the negative aspects of what is no longer a trend but a normal way of life.

I was hanging out with friends the other day when there came a moment of stillness in the midst of conversation. One by one, like bugs to the electric blue light, each of them started to take out their phones. I was the only one not gazing into the alluring screen of a smartphone.

It’s as if we’ve forgotten what to do with silence.

We’ve given up sharpening our conversation skills for touch screens, and from this I fear we’ve grown dull

59. Faith in the chaos

The other day, sitting at the bus stop, this middle-aged woman with a prepubescent voice asked me for change, but I only had enough for the bus fare and she understood and thanked me anyway. She brushed back the curly blonde hair dangling loosely over her round, wide-eyes.

I sat on a nearby bench and took off my backpack to rest in the shade.

The woman, wearing a soft pink sweatshirt and keeping one hand on her weathered duffel bag, proceeded to tell me about the sign she’d made and the morning she spent panhandling not far from here. She was ecstatic about the thirty dollars she was given by some generous doorman. She had an end-goal of forty-seven dollars, which would be enough to get her a room for the night at a hotel she seemed to have a rapport with.

She told me she sometimes has seizures. One time, during an attack, she fell against a bathtub and knocked out a bunch of her teeth. She told me she plans on getting dentures eventually so she can eat more than bananas. Speaking of food reminded her that she was hungry, but her priority was saving her daily earnings to rent a room.

“I’m looking forward to sleeping in a bed,” she said, “and to take a shower.”

Only seventeen dollars away from her goal, she said, “God will provide.”

As other pedestrians walked by, she would ask them for change and they would have nothing and she would thank them, God bless them, anyway. Her spirits were high. She was of the variety that allowed little of the outside world to affect her attitude. How long she’d been homeless and what detectable disability she lived with, I would never find out.

She told me that her ex-husband tried to kill her with a hammer.

The scene was vicious, though she explained no further. To this kind of openness, I had no response. I simply nodded and let her tell the story. I mean, what are you supposed to say in this situation?

“I was in a coma,” she said. “And God came to me and said, ‘Wake up, little angel.’ And I woke up. He saved me.”

The woman said her ex-husband was in prison, so he couldn’t hurt her anymore. She said that she forgave him and she hoped that he would be able to forgive himself. “I hope he does,” she said, “so he can go to heaven. Everyone deserves to go to heaven.”

There was a lull in conversation.

I could not relate to this woman’s life. Perhaps in my current state of couch-surfing apartment-searching, we were equally homeless. But I had friends and family to support me in this transition. For her, transition was far less comfortable and a bit more permanent.

She said, “I better get back to work,” and gathered her things, including her sign, never losing her toothless smile.

“Good luck,” I said.

“It’s not luck, it’s God’s will.”

We parted ways and I waited for my bus in a private, pensive state of mind. Obviously homelessness is an issue in every major city, though the reasons that people end up homeless are varied. I’ve experienced being broke as broke can be, but I’ve been lucky to have support from family and friends in times of need. We don’t and won’t always have that support.

I’ve met a lot of people who consider gods to be the chess players in charge of the movement of their lives. I think it helps make the chaos more understandable, or at least more approachable. No one expects their husband to come at them with a hammer. No one expects to be homeless. But when things get bad and then worse, it seems like people often turn to gods for guidance in hopes that these troubled times are simply strategic maneuvers leading them across the game board toward a better destination.

I’ve never considered myself a religious or spiritual person. If anything, I suscribe to a belief in karma. I’m more of a stable observer. I encourage and embrace all the peaceful points of view and absorb the positive mantras they proclaim, since it seems like every religion and spiritual belief is aimed toward the same basic tenet of “love unconditionally.”

As a species, I think we lean toward the omniscient presence of external influence because it offers answers to things we can’t explain.

Basically, we all want faith in the chaos.

It sucks that religions consider themselves rivals while fighting for the same ideals. We’re like siblings who can’t agree on which Power Ranger they want to be even though they’re on the same team.

In the end, what I learned from this interaction was that we really need to be grateful for the things we have, since we never know when they’ll be taken away from us. There is value in seeing the silver-lining to the darkest clouds, if only because it sheds light in a time of gloom.

There will be people out there who will share shockingly personal details. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, let them share. There are people who know loneliness of unfathomable levels, and even if it’s only for a few minutes at a bus stop, they don’t have to be alone.