Sunday Morning

Why is it any more ennobling for someone to claim to be a person of faith rather than a person of doubt? I like people of doubt. I like people who question what the hell is going on. St. Thomas is my favorite apostle, even if he was wrong. Galileo smelled a rat, and he was right. It doesn’t matter what you believe; it only matters how you behave. Or as it so succinctly says in Christian scripture, “Faith without works is dead.” Believe what you like, but this is what I believe. God, if there is one, speaks and expresses Herself through a group of people who the great becardiganed philosopher Fred Rogers called “helpers.” […]

Helpers are people who try to make life more bearable for those who are suffering. They are people who try to clean up the mess, are tolerant of the weak-minded, and resist those who would exploit others for their pleasure or profit. […]

So if I have a religion it’s in appreciation of helpers, whoever they happen to be at the time. I’ve tried not believing in God, but that’s just as hard as swallowing all of the liturgical mumbo jumbo. I don’t know who or what composed our universe, but I’m not sure that matters anyway. I suspect that any real spiritual peace lies in simply being a decent human being. Or at least trying to be.

~ Craig Ferguson, from “The Helpers” in Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations (Blue Rider Press; May 7, 2019)


Portrait: AT&T Performance Arts Center

Plook

By 4:30 the following morning, when I got up…a massive zit—or “plook” as they are known in the common parlance of my people—was threatening beneath the skin on the tip of my nose. It was not yet visible to anyone else…

“Yuv goat a plook,” he told me, helpfully, in his urbane Falkirk accent. The mere fact that he had spoken at all was an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Bob was not given to personal remarks.

Ignoring the bustle of the kitchen where my brother and sisters were having breakfast, I headed to the bathroom to see what I was dealing with. I have never encountered anything like it to this day. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop or Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic would be hard pressed to re-create this pus-filled behemoth. Technically it was one plook, but it had three heads. Three creamy peaks that looked as though they could erupt at any moment. The slopes of this organic mountain were greasy and bloodred. It seemed to pulse or throb. It was as if it had a life force all its own. It was a sentient being. A demon plook visiting this realm to consume and destroy. The Cthulhu Spot. Voodoo Acne. Black magic was upon me.

I knew I must not touch the beast, but I couldn’t help myself. My index fingers approached it in the familiar pincer movement and almost before I made contact it burst into a cascade of foul custard, splattering the mirror with its first ejaculation, then oozing like a river of smooth vomit from the end of my nose. Now I was committed; the dam had been broken and I had to see this thing through to the grisly, bitter end. My fingers squeezed tighter and the pressure produced more of the foul lava, mixed now with fresh red blood—runny sunny-side-up egg yolk and ketchup. The pain was excruciating, but I didn’t care. It was that fucker or me. My eyes ran with tears as I milked and squeezed and pressured and wrestled until all its revolting innards lay across the bathroom sink, an abstract postcard of hell.

I felt the momentary satisfaction of besting a formidable and hated enemy, but very quickly the remorse set in. I squeezed the giant red stump on the end of my nose to see if somehow that would remove it, but I was just pouring gasoline on the fire. All that I was doing was creating more swelling. I looked in the mirror at the damage and knew that I could not possibly be seen in public like this. I could not go to school. I would become an outcast, ridiculed, rejected, and despised. There was no way Dawn Harrison could see me in this state. It was too early in our relationship. We hadn’t even started a relationship. Had we been married fifteen years it would have been too early in our relationship. I could not even be seen by my siblings or my parents. My nose, or what was left of it after the Battle of Poisoned Boil, was three times its normal size and the bright vermilion red otherwise seen only on a baboon’s anus. It was an extreme emergency, so I had to do what all resourceful schoolkids do in such situations. Feign diarrhea.

Normally my mother would not have bought such an obvious con to stay off school, but the desperation in my voice sold the swindle, or at least convinced her that I wasn’t just faking. She handed me a glass of water through the door, which I opened sufficiently to let her see my face. “What happened?” she whispered, looking at my nose in awe.

“I squeezed a plook and it kind of went bad.”

~ Craig Ferguson, Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations (Blue Rider Press; May 7, 2019)

Flying AA 1011. With Chop.

1 hour out from DFW (Dallas) on flight back to NY. 37,000 feet up.

Heavy chop. Heavy.

Seat belt alert pops up.

Cabin is quiet.

Pilot comes on the intercom: “Flight attendants, please take your seats.” Never a good sign.

I close the lid on my iPad. I note that others around me put down their gadgets.

Captain is back on the intercom: “Apologize folks. Bumpy ride here. I checked with air traffic control. Heavy turbulence in both directions, at all levels. We’re over Nashville. Expect this to clear in 8 minutes. Please take your seats.”

8 minutes. Not: We expect this to end soon. Or: We hope this ends soon. Or: We think it will end soon.

8 minutes. God, I Love technology.

I look up the aisle. Left wing drops and then right side counters to stabilize. Back, forth, up, down. Replay. Over and over. How does this Bird not blow apart in pieces? Why is your head going there? How is that line of thinking helpful at all?

Pilot takes the plane up. And accelerates. Plane groans as it grinds against the headwinds. Oh I agree Captain. Too rough here. Let’s get closer to God for help.

Gratitude surges, for living, and for life. Just get me home. I promise I’ll be better. At every thing. A bloody saint. I’ll be nice to Sawsan, and Dale and Kiki. Maybe even throw out a compliment or two and pretend like I mean it.

I grab the loose end of the seat belt and pull it snug around my belly. I’m short of breath. Could I be hyperventilating here? I need to lose 10 pounds. I clutch my iPad with both hands. Can’t possibly damage this device. Hitting another passenger does come to mind, secondary concern behind damage to the iPad.

We’re 10 minutes in. He said 8 minutes!

We’re 14 minutes in. Chop continues to be heavy. But he said 8 minutes! [Read more…]

Riding Metro North. With ‘My’ Little Bird.

So, let’s back up the bus a bit and set this up.  It was a New Year post titled What’s Your Spirit Bird where Margaret Renkl explains that “There’s a New Year’s tradition among bird-watchers: The first bird you see on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year. Your spirit bird.” 

So, I’ve seen many birds since Jan 1, but not my bird. Not the right bird. And I don’t want to hear from you rule-sticklers that it’s not keeping with the “first” bird rule.

And the mind slips off the rails to a rabbit trail in Gail Honeyman’s” Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine: “I don’t need anyone else — there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.” No Hugely Holes. Not Bigly anyway. Trump’s infiltrating the mind. God, I do have problems. Bigly problems. OMG. Help me.

Monday, was, a long day. 7am flight to Dallas. 4 hour flight. 5 hours on ground. 4 hour flight back.  4 hours of sleep. (I don’t know if this math adds up. Who cares?)

And then, it’s Tuesday. I’m sitting in the warming hut waiting for a off-peak 10:00 am train to Grand Central. Light snow is falling.  Darien Schools have closed for the day. 2-3 inches, and the world stops these days. (When I was young, I used to walk to school in 2 feet of snow – I’m sure, it was in bare feet, I was that tough.  Snow days? WTH is that? The world has gotten soft.)

I shift on the steel bench, the train is scheduled to arrive in 4 minutes. I flip through my messages. And out of the corner of my eye on the ground in front of me is movement.

I lift my head.

And there she is. Has to be she. Just has to be.

Sparrow. Fluffy. Furry. Staring at me. Me staring at her. Spirit Bird? You? [Read more…]

TGIF: It’s been a long week!

Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves

Physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman has added his own manifestoIn Praise of Wasting Time. Of course, the title is ironic, because Lightman argues that by putting down our devices and spending time on quiet reflection, we regain some of our lost humanity, peace of mind, and capacity for creativity—not a waste of time, after all, despite the prevailing mentality that we should spend every moment actually doing something. The problem is not only our devices, the internet, and social media. Lightman argues that the world has become much more noisy, fast-paced, and distracting. Partly, he writes, this is because the advances that have enabled the much greater transfer of data, and therefore productivity, have created an environment in which seemingly inexorable market forces push for more time working and less leisure time.

Lightman starts his book with an anecdote from his recent time in a rural village in Cambodia. When he asked a villager how long it took her to bike daily to the market ten miles away to barter for food and goods, she replied that she had never thought about it. Lightman is “startled” at this, and jealous. He points out that we in the “developed” world (his scare quotes) have carved up our days into minuscule portions, not a single one to be wasted. He admits that “from the instant I open my eyes in the morning until I turn out the lights at night, I am at work on some project. First thing in the morning, I check my email. For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers…” 

Lightman points to several productive, creative individuals who routinely had unstructured time in their days. A fellow physicist at MIT, Paul Schechter, used to sit for hours daydreaming on park benches, which he credited with helping come up with important ideas, including a formula for the number of galaxies with different luminosities. Gertrude Stein used to drive around in the country every day and find a place to sit and write; much of that time was not spent writing, but gazing at cows. Mathematician Henri Poincaré, after a few weeks of fruitless work on functions, drank coffee one evening and in his sleeplessness found that “[i]deas rose in crowds; I felt them collide under pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions . . . “

Lightman feels we are in a “dire” situation:

Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves. We are losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us. We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog, relentless driven by the speed, noise, and artificial urgency of the wired world.

~ Anitra Pavlico, from “Alan Lightman On Wasting Time” (3quarksdaily, January 7, 2019)


Photo: Financial Times

What’s Your Spirit Bird?

 

I sit at the kitchen table preparing to read the NY Times. I separate the front section from the rest of the paper, and then pause.

I get up, go to the fridge and grab the remains of yesterday’s leftovers.

I turn to the Opinion Pages, my first stop, and scan the titles. My eyes spot an essay by Margaret Renkl.  I’m a fan-boy of Margarets. I see that her piece is titled “Spring is Coming“…well that’s a bit aggressive on January 5th, no Margaret? 

I read on.

“There’s a New Year’s tradition among bird-watchers: The first bird you see on New Year’s Day is your theme bird for the year. Your spirit bird, the bird that sets the tone for your encounters with the world and with others, the bird that guides your heart and your imagination in the coming year. It’s hardly a serious ornithological exploration, but there are plenty of birders who will wake before dawn anyway, no matter how late they stayed up on New Year’s Eve. They will drive off to some wild place teeming with avian life, all to increase the sunrise odds of seeing a truly amazing first bird. Who wouldn’t love to be matched for a year to the spirit of the snowy owl? What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!”

I pause.

Yea, OK, it’s January 5th, it’s well beyond New Year’s Day but there’s no reason I can’t find my bird now. I need my spirit bird Now.

I stop nibbling on my sandwich. Get up. Step out the back door, watch, and listen.

Silence.

I wait a few moments longer, in my short sleeve t-shirt, in 38° F temperatures.

Nothing. 

Perhaps some encouragement. Come on Red! Where’s that Red Cardinal? There are four bird feeders in the backyard. All hang on their poles silently. No breeze. They don’t swing. They are Still.

Nothing.

I step back into the house, pull the sliding door closed, and finish up Margaret’s essay.

No Bird. Wonder what that means.

I reach for the remaining quarter of my sandwich, and look down…

Chicken Sandwich…

What a gift to be guided for 12 months by the soul of a Bohemian waxwing!


Photo: Ostdrossel

Miracle. All of it. (This Year on Earth)

In 2018,

  • Earth picked up about 40,000 metric tons of interplanetary material, mostly dust, much of it from comets.
  • Earth lost around 96,250 metric tons of hydrogen and helium, the lightest elements, which escaped to outer space.
  • Roughly 505,000 cubic kilometers of water fell on Earth’s surface as rain, snow, or other types of precipitation.
  • Bristlecone pines, which can live for millennia, each gained perhaps a hundredth of an inch in diameter.
  • Countless mayflies came and went.
  • More than one hundred thirty-six million people were born in 2018, and more than fifty-seven million died.
  • Tidal interactions are very slowly increasing the distance between Earth and the moon, which ended 2018 about 3.8 centimeters further apart than they were at the beginning. As a consequence, Earth is now rotating slightly more slowly; the day is a tiny fraction of a second longer.
  • Earth and the sun are also creeping apart, by around 1.5 centimeters per year. Most of the change is due to changes in the sun’s gravitational pull as it converts some of its mass into energy by nuclear fusion.
  • The entire solar system traveled roughly 7.25 billion kilometers in its orbit about the center of the Milky Way. This vast distance, however, is only about 1/230,000,000th of the entire orbit.
  • There were two lunar eclipses and three partial solar eclipses, each a step in the long gravitational dance making up the roughly 18-year saros cycle. During one saros cycle, eclipses with particular characteristics (partial, total, annular) and a specific Earth–Moon–Sun geometry occur in a predictable sequence; at the end, the whole thing starts again. This pattern has been repeating for much longer than humans have been around to see it.

I like knowing these bits of cosmic context because they link me to a larger world. I can echo the words of Ptolemy: “Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

Mary Hrovat, from “This Year on Earth” (3 Quarks Daily, December 24, 2018)

Don’t miss the rest of her essay here: This Year on Earth


Notes:

  • Photo: Phys.org.
  • Related Posts: Miracle. All of it.
  • Inspiration: Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Stir the Soul


Notes:

  1. Attendees at Christmas Eve Mass in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Juni Kristwanto, wsj.com December 25, 2018)
  2. A man stands inside a damaged church in the village of Tel Nasri, Syria. (Rodi Said, Reuters, wsj.com December 25, 2018)
  3. An elephant wearing a Santa Claus costume performs for Thai students during Christmas celebrations at Jirasart school in Ayutthaya province north of Bangkok. (Chaiwat Subrasom, wsj.com December 24, 2018)

Come and Get Your Love

Volume Up! How great is this! ‘Tis the Season.


Notes: 1) Lori, thank you for sharing! 2) Post title from lyrics and music by Redbone: Come and Get Your Love (1974) (Don’t miss their video on Soul Train)

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