Saturday, November 14, 2009

Heaven on Earth -- Writer's Poke #265




I don't sit around and think about Belinda Carlisle much these days, but I did in 1987. Something about the video "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" spoke to me, and if you keep in mind that I was 14 years old, you can probably guess what it was.

At the time, she would have been 29, although I doubt that I gave her age much thought. I didn't know her history, or even that she was once in a band named the Go-Gos. To me, Belinda was fresh and new, and when I watched the video, I thought of her as virginal. Sure, there's a dude in the video, but he was my surrogate. And even as a 14 year old viewer, I could tell that she was just acting; she wasn't that into the stand-in.

So, how does an average person meet and enter the world of the famous? Moreover, how does a 14 year old dude make a famous chick fall for his charms, when the only way to meet someone like Belinda might be at an autograph session, where one might only have five seconds to make an impression?

These were questions I pondered in my youth, but no longer. Now, I focus on equally ridiculous questions, such as: If heaven is so great, why did God create an Earth in the first place. Lots of religious people pine for heaven, and we are often reminded not to "be of this world." But doesn't it seem like such a waste of time and energy, to create a physical world and universe, I mean. Why didn't God save himself a lot of trouble, and, oh, the 15+ billion years involved in creation and watching it all play out, and just place humans in heaven immediately?

I know people have developed plenty of "explanations" over the years for why humans needed to have a life-on-Earth experience, but none of these explanations is really satisfying. And unless you're a devout Jehovah's Witness, it's pretty clear to 99.9% of the human race that heaven will never be a place on Earth. Not even with Belinda bouncing around in a video offering herself as the possible conduit.

Describe your idea of heaven.

"Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads." -- Henry David Thoreau

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fickle Fan?

Do your music interests change over time? Looking back over the past 20 years, I'd say that mine have, although every group that I've liked in the past I tend to still like today.

If I had to pick the top four or five band most important to me, though, here's what the past 20 years of preference looks like. What's yours?


2009

The 69 Eyes

H.I.M.

Iron Maiden

Rammstein

2005

Lacuna Coil

Lullacry

The 69 Eyes

Charon

1998

Megadeth

Iron Maiden

Scorpions

Type O Negative

1993

KISS

Megadeth

Iron Maiden

Scorpions

1988

KISS

Winger

Warrant

Europe

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Most Popular Band in Finland -- Writer's Poke #264



The 69 Eyes may not be the most popular rock band to come out of Finland, but if not, they're right up there. And what does all of that success translate to in terms of mainstream American recognition? Zilch.

Of course it's not surprising that commercial radio doesn't play their songs, and granted, their Gothic style and vampire-themed songs have a built-in limited audience appeal. Nevertheless, when I recently attended a concert in Minneapolis promoting their latest album Back in Blood, I was more than a little shocked to see the venue. It was just a hole-in-wall bar in a very generic-looking strip mall.

I hadn't ordered advanced tickets, but when I arrived just before show time, maybe 100 people were there for the concert. On the other half of the bar, people watched the World Series and played pool. They didn't seem to know that the Helsinki Vampires had flown all the way to America to play for just us.

So, one of the most popular bands from Finland, a band that can sell out much bigger venues across Europe, drew maybe 200 souls at fifteen bucks a pop. Was the show good? Sure, but how disheartening it must be to work your tail off for twenty years, make ten solid studio albums, and still have almost no name recognition outside your home continent.

How important is it to be popular?


"Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.” -- Immanuel Kant

It's Alright to Cry -- Writer's Poke #263



In 2nd grade, it was a big honor, of course, to be allowed to run the film projector. Mrs. Brandt made us earn the privilege by handing out tokens for good behavior. Being in charge of the film projector might be worth 25 tokens, and it took a LONG time to earn 25 tokens -- maybe as long as two weeks or more, depending on how naturally naughty you happened to be.

Those of us that hadn't yet learned the benefit of deferred gratification might elect, then, just to man the film strip, turning the crank every time the accompanying record beeped. Film strips weren't nearly as sexy, but at 10 tokens, they were quite the second grade bargain.

So what kinds of things did we watch? It's been nearly 30 years, but I still remember Rosey Grier singing "It's Alright to Cry." How unusual was Rosey, a big, African-American football player, singing a song about how it was okay to express your feelings. And as far as I remember, none of the guys immediately started crying all of the time around school, but neither did any of us make fun of Rosey for singing about crying. He was tough, and that gave him some credibility, at least to a pack of 2nd grade boys. I'm sure if he had tried to pass off that notion to a bunch of 4th graders, things would have been much different.

When is it alright to cry? When was the last time you cried? Cried in public? Cried in front of complete strangers?

"Tearless grief bleeds inwardly." -- Christian Nevell Bovee

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Hawks on Peace?


Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck -- the modern-day Three Stooges.

None of them would ever fight in a war themselves, but all of them love war. All of them believe in an Enemy, and without an Enemy, they would have nothing to talk about. Their whole worldview is wrapped up in an "us vs. them" mentality.

They spend 99% of their time talking and 1% listening; they think they know all the answers, which means they don't value asking questions.

Millions of people listen to what they say every day; I used to listen to Hannity and Rush, too, and it's amazing how they can fill 3 hours every day and say basically nothing, over and over again. And yet, the limited amount they do repeat over and over sticks in the minds of their listeners.

What did Lenin say? "A lie told often enough becomes the truth."

***

We shouldn't be surprised that the Three Stooges attack Obama for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Frankly, they don't believe in peace, they don't believe in Obama, and they probably don't even believe in Norway.

What exactly is the Hannity, Limbaugh, Beck vision for world peace? Can they ever imagine a world without nuclear weapons? For something to become a reality, you have to be able to imagine it first. These men lack imagination. A nuclear-free world might not happen in our lifetimes, but that doesn't mean it's not possible, that it's not something worth striving for.

We have better things to do with our billions of dollars, by the way, than fight wars, kill people, and create ill-will across the world. Obama understands that. And so does the Nobel Peace Prize committee that awarded him this honor.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Letterman Affair -- Writer's Poke #262



David Letterman admitted having sex with some female members of his staff. That fact in itself didn't initially bother me, but I did feel disappointed in his behavior.

I don't think I registered why I felt disappointment when I first watched his apology. But now I've identified that I am most disappointed not because he cheated on his wife, and not even because he used his power and his position for sex, but because he has now been outed as a major hypocrite.

Letterman fans, and yes I have been one for over 25 years, are, not surprisingly, quick to defend him. Everyone makes mistakes, and no one is perfect. Sure, sure. But this is a guy that's made his living poking fun at the flaws of others -- including the sexual flaws of others.

In other words, I thought he would know better. And, I still think that he did know better, but he decided to listen to his sex drive rather than the one or two tiny parts of the male brain that don't think about sex 24/7.


Everyone wants to have it all, and the pursuit of trying to obtain it makes victims of us all. I, weirdly enough, am a victim of Letterman's affairs -- a victim in that I've learned that another one of my childhood heroes is simply a flawed, hypocritical human being.

We all are, of course, but it's nice to pretend that some of us aren't. It's what perpetuates hope and makes belief possible.

In what ways are you a hypocrite? How have the flaws identified in others caused you to analyze your own flaws?

"A hypocrite is a person who - but who isn't?" -- Don Marquis

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cookie Monster, Re-educated -- Writer's Poke #261

The only Cookie Monster my daughter knows plays soccer with Ernie, ice skates with Big Bird, and likes to eat healthy foods, such as apples, salad, and milk.

This was not the Cookie Monster I grew up with. In the 1970s, Cookie Monster was always shoving cookies into his mouth. But even at the age of 5, I could tell that he wasn't actually eating any of the cookies. You see, the Cookie Monster didn't have a throat, and un-eaten cookies were obviously flying everywhere.

Nevertheless, the good people at the Children's Television Network decided in 2006 that the Cookie Monster was a bad example for children, and soon thereafter, he was shown exercising and eating healthy snacks. He can still "eat" the occasional cookie, but for all intents and purposes, he's been neutered.

Not surprisingly, no one seems to care that Cookie Monster doesn't speak grammatically-correct English. When he talks, he sounds like he learned English from either Frankenstein's monster, or by watching Indian actors in 1940s Hollywood films.

And have we forgotten that Cookie Monster is, after all, a monster! Since when do we learn morals and values and proper eating habits from monsters? Monsters should set bad examples. If you want to show the consequences of eating too many cookies, I don't have any problem with that. Show Cookie Monster after a bender, but don't take away what was his sole purpose for existence for the first 30 years of his life.

What has changed from your childhood that really annoys you?
"A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five." -- Groucho Marx

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Vin Diesel for a Day -- Writer's Poke #260




Vin Diesel has a facebook site for his fans, and he recently posted a picture of himself in Japan. He's over there to promote the premiere of a new film, and one of the captions for a photo in his online album reads: "Hiding in plain sight." Vin is standing on a Tokyo street, and none of the passersby seem to notice him. Certainly, they notice that he's an American, and perhaps they know that he is Vin Diesel. Maybe it's the culture that allows him to be out in the open without a mob of fans attacking him. If he tried to walk down the street in any American city, he'd probably need body guards, and I'm sure there'd be professional photographers out stalking his every move.

When I saw this picture, I thought: I'd like to be Vin Diesel for a day. I'd have no interest in switching lives with him, or anyone else, on a permanent basis, but wouldn't it be fun to be someone else for a day?

I'm not sure exactly how that would work, as you'd still want to be yourself, but it wouldn't work just to be yourself inside someone else's body. You would need to be able to access the other person's memories, behaviors, etc., but you would need to be able to retain access to your own mind, too. Otherwise, how would being someone else for a day actually work?

Being someone else for a day might have a downside, too. Would it be fun, for example, to be Hugh Hefner for a day? Guys can imagine the fantasy of what that would be like, but imagine if his real life was as boring as anyone else's? And on the flip side, if his life somehow lived up to the fantasy, going back to your life would be even more painful. Perhaps it's better just believing that the fantasy image of Hugh Hefner is just that: a projection. Finding out that the fantasy was real might be too much knowledge to bear.

Speaking of fantasies, Mariah Carey agreed to take off her make-up for a role in an upcoming movie. This is not something that any diva should ever be allowed to do. Mariah, you are not allowed to look like a real woman. You have a flawless image to uphold, and it's not your right to bring harm or disappointment to the imaginations of your fans. Shame on you.

If you could be anyone else for a day, would you do it? If so, who would you pick? If you wouldn't do it, why not?

"The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge." -- Albert Einstein

Friday, September 18, 2009

Just Keep Swimming -- Writer's Poke #259



Tavi decided that she doesn't like going to daycare. Her mom and I both work full-time gigs, so while we'd both love to stay home and play with her all day, every day, that's simply not an option.

Seeing her get upset is, well, upsetting. And spending the mornings worrying that the phone will ring ("Please come get your uncontrollably-crying daughter, Mr. Fuller") sucks.

Dori in Finding Nemo has a wonderful philosophy that I like to use in times like these: "Just keep swimming." If you're a fish, what choice do you have really? As far as I know, fish can't drown.

I hate to complain. My name isn't Job, and I recognize how good my life is. It's just that little stresses have the same weight as gigantic ones. How is that possible?

Okay. You don't care about my troubles, and so I will put my violin away. Do you have a violin of your own that you want to play? Please, be my guest.

What stresses you out? Maybe writing about it would help. Do so now.

"There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won't cure, but I don't know many of them." -- Sylvia Plath

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

KISS, My Griots -- Writer's Poke #258

KISS is releasing its first studio album in eleven years later this fall. Why did it take them eleven years? In part, because Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley think they know what the fans want. The fans want to hear "Rock and Roll All Nite," "Deuce," and "Strutter." They do not, according to Simmons and Stanley, want to listen to new material. Is that true? Do KISS fans only want to listen to the same ten or twenty songs over and over again? I find that very hard to believe.

Then again, there's something comforting about listening to what you already know, as opposed to having to break in new material. And how in the world can a new song compete with one that you've heard hundreds of times? If your favorite songs act as the soundtrack to your life, then KISS fans may simply want to tap into the past. New songs are best sung by new artists for young people whose pasts are not yet formed.

Now, you might think this is a bit of a stretch, but groups like KISS and Rolling Stones, etc., are the modern version of griots. Where is the oral tradition these days? It's set to music, and story tellers perform in stadiums, backing up their stories with guitars and drums.

The Muse lives on in the music.

What music speaks to you? What stories does it tell?

"Music is the best means we have of digesting time." -- W.H. Auden

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Biz Markie -- Just a Friend (Literal Version)

One of my favorite literal videos. Almost as good as Rick Astley's "Never Going to Give You Up."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Thinker -- Writer's Poke #257




One of the common criticisms of William Shakespeare's Hamlet is that he thinks too much. While there's nothing wrong with thinking, per se, and while most would acknowledge that thinking is probably a good thing when used in moderation, thinking too much can lead to the prison of inaction.

I don't know that Hamlet's flaw was over-thinking. And, it's not clear to me that Hamlet was guilty of inaction. But this isn't a lesson on Hamlet, and I don't want to spend too much time thinking about it. Let's just take as a starting place that Hamlet thinks a lot.

Othello, on the other extreme, is an impulsive chap. Some would say that impulse is his downfall, and that he acts too quickly and doesn't think things through sufficiently. Again, I'm not saying I necessarily buy into that analysis, okay? So cut me some slack here.

My point is simply thus: some of us are more like Hamlet, and some of us are more like Othello. And some of us are more like one of the countless other characters that sprang forth from the fertile imagination of the Great One. The man I like to call Billy.

Which William Shakespeare character is your doppelganger? Or, which one do you identify with most closely, and why?

"A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool." -- William Shakespeare

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Talking for a Living -- Writer's Poke #256

Yes, I used to listen to AM talk radio. Why? Well, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I lived within range of WLS, the "50,000 Watt Flamethrower" out of Chicago. In addition to syndicated programs like The Rush Limbaugh Show and Art Bell's Coast to Coast, I really enjoyed listening to local host Roe Conn's Saturday morning and weekday afternoon shows. All of these shows were entertaining, and that's why I listened.

By the end of the 1990s, however, entertaining no longer seemed to be a prerequisite to getting a show, or growing an audience. Have you ever heard The Sean Hannity Show? Here's a show with no redeeming value, and I say that not just because I disagree with the man's narrow-minded politics. Even today I can still listen to Rush, for example, because he's interesting, at least most of the time. Rush prepares for his shows and always has a "stack of stuff" to talk about. Hannity, on the other hand, never seems to prepare. I'm sure he does, but he's repetitive, has less interesting call-in conversations, and basically just annoys the hell out of me.

Quite honestly, I never thought anyone could ever have a worse show than Hannity, but Glenn Beck proved me mistaken. Beck makes Hannity look like Roe Conn. Beck's gimmick is that he uses "common sense" in a world where common sense is no longer common. Hardy-har-har, Beck. How many times can you use that phrase in a three hour program? And what exactly is "common sense"? Should we rely on it? It used to be "common sense" to say the Earth was flat, and that the Sun revolved around the Earth, etc.

But to me, common sense only goes so far. Beck's common sense doesn't seem to value scientific inquiry, the importance of analyzing data, or the need to test theories and "common sense" beliefs.

Simply put, the real problem with talkers like Hannity and Beck is this: they put beliefs before evidence. They think they know everything, and they lack the ability to listen. And what's worse, their narrow-minded, bull-headed chatter isn't the slightest bit entertaining.

What radio or TV personality would you like to punch in the face, and why?

"A narrow mind and a fat head invariably come on the same person." -- Zig Ziglar

Under the Influence -- Writer's Poke #255

Last night I watched the final HBO special George Carlin filmed before he died. Some will say that he was smart, but too vulgar, that he was more than a comedian, but spent most of the time speaking to the already converted. Call him what you will, but I call him irreplaceable. We are not going to see another comedian/philosopher/prophet like him again for a long time, if ever.

And I started thinking about other individuals that have shaped my philosophy and worldview. In addition to Carlin, four others came to mind immediately: Socrates, Lao Tzu, Carl Sagan, and Kurt Vonnegut.

What attracts me to these men? All of them were thinkers. All of them were willing to question everything. On one end of the spectrum, Vonnegut and Carlin could come off as bitter, but part of that was simply part of their act. Both, I think, admitted that the spark of idealism was still within them. It might be deeply buried, but it was still there. On the other end of the spectrum, Sagan and Socrates exhibited a fascination with discovery. They knew that simple belief and "common sense" wasn't enough. What was required, always: inquiry and an earnest evaluation of the evidence.

And Lao Tzu? For me, he's my connection to the spiritual realm -- an important voice in living an ethical existence, with none of the baggage that comes with Christianity and other religious viewpoints.

Who are the five individuals that have had the greatest influence on your worldview? Why?

"Criticism is the only known antidote to error." -- David Brin

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Sally Forth Affair -- Writer's Poke #254

Whenever people talk about their favorite syndicated cartoons, they usually mention strips like The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Dilbert. Sally Forth is not one that generally comes up, but I think it's pretty good. In a lot of ways, I think it's just as smart as the cartoons referred to above, but maybe it's just not as flashy. I guess you could describe it as understated, and not a cartoon for kids, per se. Nevertheless, it's funny enough that it probably should be appreciated by old and young alike.

One of the ongoing story lines is Ted's office romance with Aria. Ted and Sally's marriage seems solid. They don't have any issues that might cause Ted to stray. And if you asked Ted what his relationship with Aria is all about, he would most likely look at you blankly. In Ted's mind, he and Aria are just friends. They share a lot of the same interests, and the chemistry between them is clearly there. But Ted isn't a dog, and the thought of having an affair with Aria would never cross his mind.

Likewise, Aria enjoys Ted's company at work, but she's not trying to destroy Ted's marriage. She's not trying to lead Ted on. But the underlying reality is: she's an unattached heterosexual woman, and Ted is a heterosexual man. If Ted weren't married, it wouldn't take much imagination to see him and Aria together. But since he is married, both of them enjoy each other's company in a strictly platonic way.

Other characters in the strip, such as Sally's friend Alice, as well as some of Ted's coworkers, believe that there is something funny, or at least inappropriate, about Ted and Aria's relationship. Alice describes Aria as Ted's "office wife," and eventually, based on the perceptions of others, as well as the low-level jealousy exhibited by his wife, Ted decides to confront Aria to clarify their relationship. He's never really able to do that, though, as he always ends up tripping over his own words, and/or because Aria cuts him off and makes fun of him.

If the relationship is completely innocent, then one question: When one of Ted's coworkers goes out on a date with Aria, why does that bother Ted so much?

Can men and women just be friends?

"Flirtation: attention without intention." -- Max O'Neil

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Evolution of History -- Writer's Poke #253

A student of a colleague of mine recently got very upset with him because he used Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States as the class's textbook. She didn't appreciate what she saw as Zinn's liberal slant. Of course until very recently, the common person wasn't even worth historical investigation. History has typically been reserved for gods and generals.

"Does history change?" I ask my students. Of course it does, one responded. After all, historians dig into the archives, find out new information, and that new evidence changes the way we think about what has happened.

In truth, history is all about evidence, to be sure. But more than that, it's about focus and interpretation. And, that, my friends, is why history changes. There is no such thing as the past. It's all constructed. And as Winston Churchill himself once said, "History is written by the victors." That doesn't mean that all victors are liars, but it does indicate that history is slanted.

Maybe slanted history isn't a bad thing? After all, Emily Dickinson encouraged us to "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Of course she was basically saying what Jack Nicholson would say a century later in A Few Good Men: "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth."

How does history evolve? Do you feel uneasy about the virtue of a truth told slant?

"History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth." -- E. L. Doctorow

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spiritual Lust -- Writer's Poke #252

Longing and lust are connected. I don't think there's any argument about that. And while I don't want to offend anyone, I really believe that the longing to believe in the existence of God can easily turn into lust.

The extreme examples of spiritual lust are people that speak in tongues, chant Jesus's name, or get lost in a wave of emotion. Some will say, "These are just folks wrapped up in the Holy Ghost." Call it what you want, but it doesn't seem very much different to me than people caught up in a lustful romp.

Don't get me wrong: there's nothing necessarily wrong with a good, lusty romp. But let's call it what it is.

On the show 30 Rock, Tina Fey's character, Liz Lemon, carries the torch for "Flower Guy." When she sees him walking into a church on a Tuesday, however, she views that as a major warning sign. Why do some guys, she wonders, seem so normal, and yet have weird obsessions and dark secrets? In Flower Guy's case, he was just attending an AA meeting, which is a far more appropriate explanation for a man to be visiting a church on Tuesday in Lemon's opinion.

Explore the concept of God lust.

"God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere." -- Voltaire

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Friendship's Orbit -- Writer's Poke #251

Earth, as we know, is the perfect distance from the Sun for human life. Venus is too hot and Mars is too cold, but the Earth is like Goldilocks's porridge: just right.

The gravitational pull of the Sun is pretty incredible, though, when you think about how far away a planet like Neptune is. In fact, scientists believe that there are celestial bodies farther out than the dwarf world of Pluto that still find themselves in orbit around the Sun.

Tonight I was just sitting around thinking about love, as I am wont to do, and I thought: people have orbits, too. Think about the friend that you don't see for a year, for example. Everyone seems to have someone like that, a Haley's comet friend that they can "pick right up with" as though no time has passed by. And then there are the people you interact with daily, much like the Moon interacts with the Earth, say.

Some people might be like the Sun, attracting a whole solar system of folks, whereas others might be more like one of the planets, a moon, or a meteor. Is all of this preordained? Are we stuck in orbit for good? Are we limited to the space we occupy and the people that occupy the orbits around us?

Describe your orbit of friendship. Who revolves around you? Do you revolve around others?

"All humans are interconnected, one with all other elements in creation." -- Henry Reed

Monday, July 20, 2009

Chinese Amazon -- Writer's Poke #250

Canadian professional wrestler and former World Champion Bret "Hitman" Hart released his autobiography a couple of years ago. The problem was, it was initially only released by his publisher, Random House, in Canada. Fans and readers in the United States would have to wait an additional year for the book to be published south of the border.

I didn't feel like waiting, so I jumped on to the Canadian version of Amazon and placed my international order. In addition to the main amazon.com site, amazon also has international sites for Canada, the UK, China, Japan, Germany, and France.

If you haven't looked at the international amazons, I'd encourage you to do so. It's interesting to see what pops up on the various home pages. Japan's, for example, promotes watches, shoes, and anime, whereas Germany is apparently more interested in DVD's, digital cameras, and electronics.

Although I only speak English, I think I could navigate my way through the non-English European sites. With a little luck, I might even be able to work the Japanese site. But the difference between even the Japanese site and the Chinese site is pretty noticeable. The Chinese site relies much more on characters and text.

Just for fun, I did a search on Chinese amazon for Michael Jackson, and I found 23 items. You can get the Chinese version of Thriller for a very reasonable 42 yuan ($6.15).

What can you learn about a country by looking at its most popular websites?

"China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese." -- Charles de Gaulle

Friday, July 17, 2009

Common Knowledge -- Writer's Poke #249

On our flight to Zurich, I had some time to kill. Fortunately, most airlines these days come equipped with monitors attached to the back of each seat. And Swiss Air offered us a variety of time-killing options.

I was happy to see that one of the free games available was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I always do pretty good at the questions when I'm watching the TV show at home, but once I started playing the game on the plane, I realized just how little I really know.

Swiss Air's version of Millionaire was from the UK, and since I don't know much about soccer or cricket or UK geography or UK pop culture, I had trouble getting past even the first or second question.

In other words, anyone from the UK that happened to be watching me play would undoubtedly have thought that I was one great big dummy.

Knowledge, it seems, has a cultural context. How often we overlook that.

How has your culture informed what you know?

"The only source of knowledge is experience." -- Albert Einstein

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009

What's Next for Palin?

People are speculating on what Palin's next move will be now that she's resigned her governorship.

I wonder if Hugh Hefner's or Larry Flynt's people have made her an offer...

By the way, what are the main duties of the governor of Alaska, anyway? And if Palin cannot fulfill the duties, does that mean that the first runner-up assumes the throne? Does the runner-up get her crown, too?

Photo from http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/

The Color of Living and Dying at Once -- Writer's Poke #248

I carried her into the room and sat her down on the metal examination table. The doctor knocked on the door, entered, and briefly explained how the shot would work. He explained that I could stay or go; I elected to stay, and I watched as he injected death into her body. She was too weak to fight it, and in a matter of seconds, she was dead.

The hardest part was watching her body briefly contort and convulse. As the magic potion did its work, she lost all muscle control. And then she was still. What was once a living, breathing being was now eight pounds of biohazardous waste.

Other than when I've killed the occasional fly or bug, the euthanizing of a cat is the closest I've come to the death experience. But I've always had a morbid curiosity about the process of dying. At one moment in time, a person could be both instantaneously alive and dead. What is that moment like?

Actually, the state of death isn't so clear cut. The body starts preparing for it weeks, if not months, in advance. Sleeping and eating habits change, and the mental process of accepting one's own death begins.

One question remains: what we hear when we die? Will it be Dickinson's annoying fly, or will it be silence eternal?

What color would you assign to crossing over?

"For three days after death hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off." -- Johnny Carson

Sunday, July 5, 2009

My Life from a Distance -- Writer's Poke #247

People that go through Near Death Experiences (NDEs) describe how their spirits leave their bodies. They might watch from above, for example, as doctors work frantically to save their lives. But whether real or imagined, survivors of NDEs often find that the purposes of their lives have totally changed. For some, the NDE itself gives life a purpose that it had heretofore lacked.

Most of us will never have a NDE, and there's no reason to wait for one, or heaven forbid, seek one out. Although it might not be nearly as sexy among the paranormal clique, why not have your own Near Life Experience (NLE)? That is, go off to the woods like Henry David Thoreau for a few years. Or, hell, if you insist on being more practical, just go to the local Holiday Inn for a weekend. Bottom line, set time aside to be by yourself, and focus solely on where you are, where you've been, and where you want to be.

How many people do that? Why should it take the scare of death to wake you up to how you are living? It shouldn't, but many of us run in our little hamster wheels, chalking up the miles, but going nowhere.

Pretend that you're your best friend. How would your best friend view the life you're living? Now, pretend that you're a total stranger. How would the perception of your life change when viewed from a stranger's point of view?

"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." -- Oscar Wilde

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Object of Desire -- Writer's Poke #246

My wife would have you believe that I'm a sexy beast. But here's the world's worst kept secret: For just about everyone in the world except her, I'm not.

Would I mind being a popular object of desire? That's an interesting question. And I guess the answer would be: no, I wouldn't mind, as long as being objectified didn't turn me into a Fabio-style running joke.

It's always made me curious, though: how do hot chicks feel about being sexualized? Do they dig it? Children, I know there's no right or wrong answer to my query, but most must. Although we've been told that the objectification of women is wrong, because it inevitably leads to viewing women as less than human, we know that such a belief is incomplete. In fact, such a belief is probably more damaging than the potential problem it warns us against.

Tangent: Ever notice that no one complains if you objectify someone for their IQ? Maybe it's time for fans of Einstein to unite and put an end to intellectual objectification once and for all.

Do you need to be desired?

OR

Would you ever post provocative pictures of yourself to the Internet? If you would, what would be your incentive (other than financial)? If you would not, is there any incentive (including financial) that would make you change your mind?

"Check out the big brain on Brett!" -- Samuel L. Jackson, from Pulp Fiction

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ten Light Years Away -- Writer's Poke #245

The past is farther away than the nearest star. We reach for it with our memories, but like a pawn in a game of chess, we can never move backwards.

How does one measure ten years? A decade is such a short period of time, and yet as I look back ten years, I make startling discoveries. Ten years ago, I wasn't married. Ten years ago, I had lived in the same state my entire life. Ten years ago, I had never made more than $20,000 in a year.

When we look at the stars, we see them from the perspective of the Earth, as though where we are in the universe is the center, and the stars are on the periphery. Likewise, when we look to the past, we assume that the present moment is the place we start when measuring distances of time.

With each passing day, we have the opportunity to achieve more. But paradoxically, the more we achieve, the less satisfied we may become. Achievement becomes a burden that some cannot escape, and the longing for a simpler time draws us back to the past. We may or may not acknolwedge that the past was just as complicated as our present reality, but the inability to travel back to test that theory keeps its enchantment alive.

Compare your life now to your life ten years ago. How has it changed? When were you more happy, content, or satisfied with your life? Why?

"Time is the longest distance between two places." -- Tennessee Williams

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Digesting Memories -- Writer's Poke #244

Many consider Federico Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2 to be one of the best films ever made. I don't know if I would go that far, but it certainly is cerebral. Much like Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, reality, memory, and fantasy blur together.

The scene from the film that sticks out most to me is when all of the women in Guido Anselmi's life assemble in one room. Here are his wife, his mistress, old girlfriends, and possibly even women that simply caught his eye for a brief moment on the bus. What an odd and potentially horrifying scenario! And yet, all the women wear big smiles, and everyone appears to be having a jolly-good time -- almost as if they are attending a pleasant memory reunion of sorts.

Why do certain memories stay with us? According to Edmund Bolles, "We remember what we understand; we understand only what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want."

So what exactly does Guido want? That's a question that works on many levels, but at the most basic level, he's probably no different than anyone else. He wants compassion, love, and understanding. And he doesn't want to be alone.

What memories do you pay most attention to? What do you learn from your experiences?

"Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories." -- Steven Wright

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bitch -- Writer's Poke #243

Meredith Brooks keeps releasing albums, bless her heart. But basically she's a one-hit wonder best known for her 1997 song "Bitch."

Some of you might remember that song, whose refrain goes: "I'm a bitch, I'm a lover, I'm a child, I'm mother" etc. In essence, Brooks is saying: there are many different facets to my being, so don't try to categorize me.

I have to tell you that I find it somewhat ironic that her entire musical career, then, has been completely engulfed by this one song. Although she's released a number of albums since this song, people heard "Bitch" so many times that they decided they never needed to hear another Brooks song for the rest of their lives.

And yet, I was sitting in my office the other day, and someone's cell phone went off in the hallway. Brooks' song was the ringtone, and someone was apparently calling for the "Bitch."

What does your ringtone say about you? Or, if you don't have a ringtone, what does that say about you?

"Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say." -- William Faulkner

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Daddy's Awesome! -- Writer's Poke #242



When I realized that Tavi could start repeating back what I was saying, I quickly taught her to say "Daddy's awesome!" Now she can say it on command, and sometimes she will even say it voluntarily out of the blue. Pretty cool.

And, well, I am awesome. No doubt. But am I more awesome than Eta Carinae, a star that is 4 million times brighter than our own sun?

Carl Sagan used to be fond of saying, "We're made of star stuff." And when you think about it, that's pretty darn awesome. But what makes humans more awesome than even the most humble star?

Some might say, "We have the ability to realize just how awesome we are." Really? Is that all it takes to make us more awesome than stars?

Where do stars go when they die? Nowhere. No one claims that there's a heaven for stars. Yet, we, that are made from stars, do have a heaven?

Strange what self-reflecting beings can come up with...

What makes you so awesome?

"If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?" -- Carl Sagan

Monday, June 29, 2009

I Want -- Writer's Poke #241

Those that have taught (or taken) Freshman Composition in the past 15 years are probably very familiar with Judy Syfer's classic 1971 feminist essay "I Want a Wife." In it, she assumes the voice of the typical male chauvinist, describing all the things a good wife must do: not complain, please sexually, put herself second, take care of the kids and all of the housework, etc. Throughout the essay, Syfer's running refrain is "I want a wife," and after she's done cataloging the wife's "traditional" duties, she rhetorically asks: "My God, who wouldn't want a wife?"

Of course her point isn't that a wife should be defined in the traditional way. She shouldn't be the husband's servant. The essay calls for liberation and a redefining of what we think a wife should be.

About twenty years later, RATT released a song called "I Want a Woman." This song is so complicated and deep that it would be impossible for me to unpack it in just a paragraph or two. Let's just say that the singer/poet extols the virtues of a female that's more "experienced."

Of course both "I Want a Wife" and "I Want a Woman" tap into the realm of male fantasy, and what an interesting realm that is. In both cases, the controlling verb is "want" -- connected either to unrealistic expectations or inappropriate desire.

Why must reality always trump fantasy?

Consider what you would like to have in a woman.

"You can never get enough of what you don't want." -- Wayne Dyer



Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Process of Becoming -- Writer's Poke #240

I watched Pinocchio for the first time last night, and what a quaint story it is by today's standards. Here's a wooden puppet that would love to become a boy, but to do so, he must prove himself. His task is to avoid lying, avoid smoking, and for god's sake, avoid playing pool. Real boys know right from wrong, and they choose to live according to their consciences.

Most of the focus in the movie is on Pinocchio, but it's quite clear in the Paradise Island segment that boys who "sin" aren't any better than marionettes (or jackasses). They're just controlled by different strings.

Pinocchio's "conscience" is Jiminy Cricket, which is interestingly a euphemism for Jesus Christ. Unlike a "real" conscience, and unlike Jesus Christ, Jiminy is not perfect. He's a little bit of a ladies' man, and one wonders if perhaps sometimes a conscience itself doesn't need a conscience. But both Jiminy and Pinocchio grow by film's end -- Pinocchio is "promoted" to real-boy status, and Jiminy receives his badge from the Blue Fairy.

Describe the process of becoming (examples: becoming a man, becoming a woman, becoming a friend or a spouse, a citizen, etc). What gets removed or lost in the process?

"To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life." -- Robert Louis Stevenson

Retouch My Body (Mariah Carey parody)

The sound is a little off, but the lyrics are crazy-good. Mariah fans and anti-Mariah haters alike should be able to appreciate this one...

The Number of the Beast -- Writer's Poke #239

http://www.laughbreak.com/lists/numbers_of_the_beast.html

This scummy kid walked out of the bathroom, and the first thing I noticed about him was his earring. In 1987, not too many guys wore earrings at my junior high. His was an inverted cross, and I remember wondering why anyone would want to wear an inverted cross. To my mind at the time, that was a symbol of Satan, and I couldn't understand why anyone would want to join the losing team.

Later that year, I found myself doodling the number 666 on one of my notebooks. When my dad saw the notebook on the kitchen table that night, he nicely recommended that I scratch out that number and not ever doodle it again. Why? I asked. How can that number have any meaning? Surely the devil doesn't really have a "human number." But Dad explained that it wasn't the number that mattered so much as how other people would perceive the owner of the notebook.

Somewhere between seeing that boy coming out of the bathroom and doodling 666 on my notebook, I had decided that other people's perceptions shouldn't make any difference. We can get hung up on the silliest of things, and allowing an inverted cross, a number, or anything else to shock us isn't rational. A number cannot be evil.

Some people actually believe that the devil's number is 666, and maybe you're one of them. If so, do you also believe that the number 13 brings bad luck?

Why do some people outgrow some beliefs and not others?

"Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?" -- James Thurber

Monday, June 22, 2009

Be Like Mike -- Writer's Poke #238

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0AGiq9j_Ak

In the original 1992 Gatorade commerical staring Michael Jordan, a chorus of children sing "If I could be like Mike" while a montage of basketball images cascade across the screen. In four specific scenes, we see Mike hold a Gatorade product in his hand, but only in one of them does he hold the cup to his lips. Does he actually take a sip? The scene cuts away before we can know for sure.

And what exactly does "Be Like Mike" mean, anyway? The message at the end of the commercial isn't very subtle: "Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade." The commercial actually ends with this command (in black and white no less). Whoever designed the commercial didn't want you to simply "be like Mike"; they wanted to make sure that you got the message that you should be drinking the green liquid (and how exactly do you describe the taste?) at all times.

If we are to "Be Like Mike," does that mean that we should use what Mike endorses? Does it mean we should play NBA basketball for the Chicago Bulls? How exactly should we follow this man? Or does being like someone require following them at all?

In the end, drinking Gatorade, wearing Haines, or eating at McDonald's doesn't make us any more like Mike. Trust me: I've done all those things, and it hasn't helped my game one bit.

Who would you like to be like? Why?

"My heroes are and were my parents. I can't see having anyone else as my heroes." -- Michael Jordan

Friday, June 19, 2009

Freedom from Choice -- Writer's Poke #237

As careful readers of my blog will recall, as an undergraduate in college I wrote a poem called "Zugzwang und Zwischen." This was the first time that I explored the idea that freedom from choice could be beneficial.

It's surprising what you find out about yourself when you spend a lot of time writing. I'm not sure I would have ever expressed that belief had I not written a poem about it. But give it some thought and see if it doesn't make some sense. Isn't it true that most of us sacrifice choices in our lives? Why on earth would we do that, unless we expected to receive some sort of benefit?

Example: most of us marry, and for most people, marriage is a contract between two people -- you "forsake all others." In other words, you give up choices, yes? And at least initially, most people find value in the institution of marriage, yes? Now, we can quibble over how high the divorce rate is, how many people cheat on their spouses, etc. But just take the state of marriage as an ideal. No doubt about it: marriage provides a certain kind of freedom.

Here's a quick experiment from psychology that you might find interesting: Researches went to a grocery store and set up two display tables. One table offered customers six flavors of jelly to taste. A second table offered twenty-four different kinds of jelly. Not surprisingly, customers bought more jelly from the table that offered fewer taste options. Apparently too many choices makes it impossible for us to reach a decision.

Describe a time when you found it liberating not to have a choice.

"If you're a sports fan you realize that when you meet somebody, like a girlfriend, they kind of have to root for your team. They don't have a choice." -- Jimmy Fallon


Thursday, June 18, 2009

What's Your Price? -- Writer's Poke #236

Back in the late 1980s, a professional wrestler named Ted Dibiase took on the moniker of "The Million Dollar Man." The gimmick made him one of the most hated heels in the business, and his signature laugh told everyone that he had the money to do whatever he wanted.

Back in those days, wrestlers still lived their characters 24/7, and wrestling promoter Vince McMahon would pay for Dibiase to be driven around in limos, fly first class, and utilize the services of a personal servant/body guard, Virgil. When Dibiase couldn't buy the World Title, he simply had the Million Dollar Belt created.

"Everybody's got a price" was Dibiase's catch-phrase, and maybe fans loved to hate him because they recognized the truth in that statement. Who can blame the rich for acting rich? Wouldn't we all act like the Million Dollar Man if given the chance?

Of course the ultimate price movie, Indecent Proposal, came out in 1993. Yes, Demi Moore's character did accept the million dollar offer from Robert Redford's character, and it almost ruined her marriage. But in the end, Redford learns that while everyone does have a price, there are still some things that cannot be bought.

You can buy a sexual fantasy, but you cannot buy true love.

What would you do for a billion dollars? a million dollars? five dollars?

"Upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all." -- Alexander the Great

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Favorite Christian -- Writer's Poke #235

I almost hesitate writing this one, because it's not my intention to jinx the man. Religious leaders tend to have some pretty nasty skeletons in their closets, but thus far, Joel Osteen seems to be exactly what he appears to be. And I have decided that Osteen is my favorite Christian.

The first time I saw him on TV, I was flipping through the channels in an effort to cure my insomnia. And there was this guy's smiling face. My wife calls me a funny atheist, but sometimes I like to watch TV preachers doing their thing, and this guy hooked me in. Something about him was different.

First off, he could give an entire sermon without once providing a Bible reference. Some might think that a weird thing to appreciate about a preacher, but I liked it. He clearly knew his Christian philosophy, but he didn't feel the need to footnote every line of text. In other words, he could think for himself, and he didn't spend an entire sermon paraphrasing or explaining what a particular Bible chapter meant.

All too often, preachers take their sermons directly from scripture, spending 30 minutes walking you through a story you've heard a million times, and leaving you with nothing new. This Osteen, though, wanted you to feel good about yourself. He wanted to give you a positive message -- and he wanted you to take away something from his message that you could actually apply in your daily life. Yes, he wanted you to believe in Jesus and all the jazz that goes with Christian faith, but he also didn't want to hit you over the head with his Bible repeatedly. And to me, that's a very refreshing approach.

While at Barnes and Noble last night, I glanced through his latest book. Happily, I discovered that he uses the same method in writing as he does for his sermons. He didn't make one Bible verse reference in the body of the text, nor did he include any Bible verse chapter notes at the end of the book. All the other books on the surrounding shelves were just full of verse references.

God bless you, Mr. Osteen.

Who is your favorite living religious figure? What do you admire most about this person?

"Satan delights equally in statistics and quoting scripture." -- H.G. Wells

The World of 100 -- Writer's Poke #234

One of the best non-fiction books I've probably ever read is Chip Heath and Dan Heath's Made to Stick. Heath and Heath explain why some ideas stay with us, while others just fade away. Their main premise is that sticky ideas have six basic qualities: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotional connectedness, and the element of story.

Looking at the blog attached to the book, I noticed that the authors posted a link to The World of 100: http://www.toby-ng.com/graphic-design/the-world-of-100/

This link takes statistical data about the world and uses picture graphs to present the information. It's difficult to visualize statistics for 6 billion people, so instead the creator of these graphs breaks it down to the world as though it were made up of just 100 people.

Thinking about the data from that perspective is really kind of neat. For example, instead of trying to image that 2 billion people in the world are Christian, try to imagine that 33 people out of 100 are Christian. Other interesting statistics: 7 people out of 100 have computers, 1 person out of 100 is college educated, 17 people out of 100 don't have access to clean drinking water. Just stating the stats in this way is nice, but the picture graph attached to each statistic is carefully designed to provide even more meaning than the numbers themselves can communicate.

What statistic do you have difficulty conceptualizing (national debt, annual number of individuals that die from breast cancer, the distance to the nearest star, etc)? How might you use "The World of 100" approach to generate more meaning and understanding for yourself and others?

"The average human has one breast and one testicle." -- Des McHale

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Routine Epiphany -- Writer's Poke #233

I know I've dissed routines before, and I still hate mornings mainly because of the routine involved in starting the day. But my daughter shared an epiphany with me last night, and I'll try not to forget it.

Every night, we read books. Then Tavi has her bath. When bath time is over, Linda brings her out wrapped in a towel, and Tavi calls for "Daddy kisses." Once properly kissed, we apply her butt wipe, put on the overnight diaper and PJs, and sit down together in the dimly-lit living room. Then Tavi will walk back and forth between us, give hugs and kisses, and try her best to negotiate a few more bedtime stories before walking off to her crib.

In the crib, everything must be just so. Her silky blanket must touch her face, her bottle must be within arm's reach, her baby that recites the child's prayer must be at her side, and her Piglet doll must be in view as well.

Some routines rock.

What are the best and worst parts of your average day?

"The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine." -- Mike Murdock

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Big Rip -- Writer's Poke #232

What exactly is a billion years? It's a hard concept to even imagine. To explain how long humans have been around in comparison to the universe, Carl Sagan used the metaphor of the calendar. If the universe began on January 1, the Milky Way galaxy wasn't formed until March, the sun and planets in our solar system didn't form until August, and single-celled life didn't appear until September. When did humans appear? Oh, around 10:48 p.m. on December 31. In other words, we've only been around for a little over an hour, and Columbus's voyage to the Americas happened a second ago.

We really have no concept of eternity. But let's assume the universe had a beginning. Scientists now believe the universe is about 14 billion years old. And from all evidence, the universe seems to be expending ever outward at an incredible rate. Can it expand forever without consequence? Some scientists suggest that it cannot. Think about filling up a balloon. Eventually it pops, and some believe this is the fate of the universe. This theory, known as "The Big Rip," speculates that the universe will eventually rip apart completely in 500 billion years, give or take.

Of course this hardly matters for Earth, as our own Sun will go Red Giant in 5 billion years (or April of Year 2 if you prefer Sagan's calendar).

Why does any of this matter? Maybe it doesn't, but think of all the people that think they will live forever. What concept of forever do they really have? And why should we believe that the universe will last for eternity?

500 Billion years is a long time, but it's not eternity.

If you believe in life after death, where do you see yourself in a billion years? If that concept is too insane to imagine, where do you see yourself in a thousand years?

If you don't believe in life after death, why not? How do you explain people that do?

"Eternity's a terrible thought. I mean, where's it all going to end?" -- Tom Stoppard

Friday, June 12, 2009

Duel Words -- Writer's Poke #231

"We couldn't have done it without a dual income." -- Carl Smith

Can you imagine making money from dueling? I think that's probably even better than earning a wage from playing Russian roulette.

Granted, "dual" and "duel" are homonyms, but a lot of words share the same letter sequence and hold quite different meanings.

There must be literally hundreds of these dual words, and here are just six off the top of my head: match, spring, fall, quarter, stroke, wave. And I bet it wouldn't take you very long to brainstorm another hundred or more.

In context, you can determine the right meaning of the word being referenced; and it's true that you can easily figure out that a word might change meaning depending on whether it's being used as a verb or a noun, etc. But still, it's fun to visualize the wrong use of the word, and think about how it totally changes the intended meaning of the sentence. Makes you feel sorry for all of the people trying to learn this crazy language...

Brainstorm as many words with multiple meanings as you can. Then, pick a few of these words and think about how you generally use the word. Does an alternative meaning of the word, or the word used as a different part of speech, help you gain insight into the way you usually use the word?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Love at 20 -- Writer's Poke #230

I stumbled across "Antoine and Colette," which is an interesting French short film from the early 1960s. Shot in black and white, it's the story of a young boy infatuated with a hot chick.

Towards the end of the film, he lays it all out for her: Let's set things straight, he tells her. Just don't lead me on.

Of course she hasn't been leading him on whatsoever. She doesn't mind if he hangs around, but if she has something she'd rather be doing, or other people she'd rather be with, she makes it quite clear that he is not the first priority in her life.

As it turns out, her parents are much more "in love" with him than she is. They see in him a nice boy, but that's probably all that Colette sees in him too. And by film's end, her parents have invited him to supper, but then there's a knock on the door and a new man has arrived to take Colette out for a date. Antoine is left to watch TV with the parents. Awkward? Uh, yeah...

The brilliance of this short is in the subtext: class issues, feminist issues, etc. It's also interesting to view the representation of a boy looking for love whereas it's the young woman that's looking more for fun and freedom.


What did romantic love mean to you? Pick a specific age, such as 20, and explore how your ideas about love have evolved over the years.

"You are the most beautiful girl that has ever lived, and it was worth dying to have kissed you." -- Dylan Thomas

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Hand That Bites Rick Astley

I like the Sir Mix-a-lot mash-up better, but this one with Nine Inch Nails is worth watching, too.

Rick Likes Big Butts and Cannot Lie

So we've been talking a lot about rain on facebook today... This next video has nothing to do with rain, but I found it while doing a rain video search, and it's just about the most brilliant thing I've ever seen. Tell me you don't agree?

Rain

It's been raining a lot lately, and so needless to say, some people have been getting tired of it. But you know, there are a lot of good songs with rain as a theme. Here are a few that come to mind:

Red Rain -- Peter Gabriel

Purple Rain -- Prince

Another Rainy Night (Without You) -- Queensryche

Blame It on the Rain -- Milli Vanilli

And here's a website that has cataloged over 800 more. http://www.lacarte.org/songs/rain/

So, what's your favorite rain song?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Happy


This is something to think about long and hard, my droogies.

Miracles -- Writer's Poke #229

I've never witnessed a miracle, and I bet you haven't, either.

Miracle is one of those terms we sometimes use rather loosely. We talk, for instance, about the "miracle of birth." Certainly the birth of a child can fill us with wonder, which relates to the Latin origin of the term, but based on the current world population, I'm not sure that childbirth can by any means qualify as extraordinary.

Is experiencing the universe an extraordinary event? Now I can go along with that, but I like my miracles to be more personal, more specific. You know, like the Catholic church's requirement that a person perform three miracles to be eligible for sainthood. In that case, the mere fact that the universe happens to exist would then no longer qualify as a miracle. Experiencing natural existence isn't enough.

A miracle would be more like David Copperfield making the Empire State Building disappear, or Jesus feeding the masses with a few fish and loaves of bread. And that kind of stuff ain't miraculous; it's just smoke and mirrors.

Have you experienced a miracle?

"It's not that I don't believe in miracles, but I never quite believe that they're real." -- Mariel Hemingway

Monday, June 1, 2009

Memory and Imagination -- Writer's Poke #228

Is it possible not to have anything worth writing about?

Two of the main tools all writers have at their disposal are memory and imagination. So how does one imagine? How does one remember? Is the process the same? Are memories real? Are images created solely in the mind any less real?

Perhaps memories are an old person's game. In theory, the older you are, the more memories you should have accumulated. But do memories stay true, or do they cross over into the realm of imagination? I think I know what I was like thirty years ago, for example, but do I really? Can I trust my memory? Has my imagination polluted what I know?

Some people claim not to have much of an imagination. Perhaps these people have never taken the time to sit, meditate, and listen. Everyone imagines, just as everyone dreams. Some are simply more aware and in tune.

Which do you rely on most: memory or imagination?

"I shut my eyes in order to see." -- Paul Gauguin

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Song Dating -- Writer's Poke #227

Greg talked about how much he was enjoying his new XM radio. It made his long commute to work enjoyable, and it allowed him to explore music that he might never have listened to otherwise.

One such channel was 80s Hair Metal. He cranked up the volume, and his car transformed into a time machine, sending him back to his high school glory days. Skid Row, Whitesnake, Winger -- they were all here. And while Greg wasn't a big fan of any of these groups back in the day, he admitted that he found comfort into listening to them now.

For most of the 1990s, it was taboo to admit any fondness for Hair Metal. If you told someone that you liked Poison, for example, they would most likely pat you on the head while wearing a look of sympathy on their faces. But now, admitting to and embracing your musical past is acceptable. Charming even. Hell, they even play all the old anthems on VH-1 classics.

In 2001, Chuck Klosterman published Fargo Rock City. In this book, Klosterman damns hair metal while attempting to praise it. Maybe this is unintentional, and perhaps not enough time had past for him to fully embrace his inner KISS. And I'll be the first to admit that I had my Peter (St. Peter, not Peter Criss) moments for a few years, too. In the end, however, if music has any value whatsoever, it should be able to transcend labels and stereotypes. And for those of us that like guitars and music that rocks, there's really nothing better than Hair Metal.

What five year period of music is your favorite? Where were you during that period of you life, and what are your thoughts on why that music most speaks to you?

"When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have." -- Edgar Watson Howe

Friday, May 8, 2009

Leaving the Nest -- Writer's Poke #226

I crossed a psychological barrier turning 30. Age is just a number, right? Well, it sure didn't feel that way at the time.

When I was 29 I was still in school, and I couldn't imagine entering my 30s in that condition. To that point, I'd never made more than $20,000 in a year, and my life wasn't full of material stuff. I had sacrificed my 20s for knowledge, and I had no worldly possessions to show for it.

So while I didn't technically drop out of school, I did seek a real job for the first time. But even still, I wasn't happy about it. Yes, I was now making a living wage, and yes, I would now be able to accumulate stuff, but ironically I also felt like a sell out.

To a certain extent, I acknowledged to myself that I needed to sell out. I couldn't stay in college forever, could I? Not as a student, anyway. Truth be told, I was at the point in my life that I needed to leave the academic nest of graduate school.

But then what did I do for a career? I became a teacher, which allowed me to keep one foot in the nest.

What experience do you have leaving the nest? Were you able to make a clean break?

"Time is neither / young nor old, but simply new, always / counting, the only apocalypse." -- Wendell Berry

Friday, May 1, 2009

Life Speaking


Bret, Where Are You?

To my loyal readers:

I'm not blogged out, but I am shifting my energies to other writing endeavors. That's why I haven't posted much lately.

At the moment, I'm working on a new novel. And like Hemingway, I believe it's best that I don't write or say too much about it while "in process."

Some time soon, I will also begin the process of revising the "pokes."

Please do keep checking back. I might not have new pokes for you, but the blog will continue, I promise.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Poem in Bad Light -- Writer's Poke #225

I like poetry, although I think about 99% of it is probably crap.

To me, poetry must marry the beauty of language with the power of story. Poetry that simply hides meaning behind complexities... who needs it?

People love language, of this I am convinced. So why don't more people read poetry? Simple: most poetry is written by poets for other poets. In other words, most poets have purposely limited their audience. Those poets that wrote for a general audience, Robert Frost and Maya Angelou come to mind, are not considered to be among the "elite poets," at least by poetry snobs.

Real poems evoke real emotions. Take Theordore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" or Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" or Sylvia Plath's "Daddy." If you've taken an English class or two in high school or college, I'm sure you've read these poems; but even if you have, why not go back and read them again?

Do you ever write in a way that excludes others? How might you develop a more inclusive style?

"Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat." -- Robert Frost

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dog in Training -- Writer's Poke #224

Some people in my neighborhood have one of those invisible fences for their dog; I'd probably never have noticed the "fence" if it weren't for the accompanying "Dog in Training" sign.

Dog in training, I thought. What an interesting concept. It reminded me of the old fashioned finishing schools for young debutantes.

Do puppies really need to learn how to become dogs? Doesn't the process happen naturally? And then I thought: What does it mean to be a certified dog? Drawing connections from the sign, it would indicate that a dog learns its territory. It learns to accept a fence that it cannot see. It conforms to what its master wants it to be: well-mannered and restrained.

In other words, it learns to become something other than its nature.

How has the influence of family, friends, or society "trained" you? Do you have any idea who you might be without outside influence? In other words, has your "essence" been altered?

"We are strange beings, we seem to go free, but we go in chains -- chains of training, custom, convention, association, environment -- in a word, Circumstance -- and against these bonds the strongest of us struggle in vain." -- Mark Twain

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why Settle? -- Writer's Poke #223

Compromise isn't a dirty word. And as I've noted in a previous poke, sometimes "good" is good enough.

So perhaps it's a sign of maturity to accept a life that doesn't meet all of your dreams? Perhaps settling is a sign that you've accepted the reality of life's "wake up call."

And perhaps settling is one of those psychological stages of life. It's been a while since I've studied psychology in any regimented way, but I do recall a stage called "acceptance," and maybe acceptance is a synonym for settle?

Acceptance also indicates an acknowledgment that we're powerless to change our circumstance. It's the last stage before death, for example -- and not just physical, but also mental and spiritual.

But damn it all to hell, I'm not dead yet.

How can you avoid settling for less than what you need?

"Once we accept our limitations, we go beyond them." -- Brendan Francis

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Religious Cliche -- Writer's Poke #222

I suppose it's inevitable. When you go over the same ideas again and again, they become rather cliched. Their meaning and value, assumed, never questioned.

In the forward to The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008, editor Philip Zaleski claims, "Everyone recognizes the figure of the religious hypocrite, mouthing prayers or offering devotions with no attention to inner meaning." Is it fair to call such people hypocrites? I would prefer to call them victims. When you've been told your whole life that the Son of God (who is actually God -- or a part of God -- himself) gave up his human life to forgive the sins of humanity, is it hypocritical to act as though you possibly can understand what this means?

A few lines later, Zaleski seems to acknowledge that even the "average schlep in the pews, ignorant of theology and innocent of mysticism, praying with half his mind on his girlfriend or his gold game, has nevertheless amassed, week by week and year by year, a bank of [religious] wisdom." In other words, you might not be able to explain what you know, but you've absorbed the knowledge nonetheless, and that's what counts.

But beyond the cliche, what do you really "know"?

Is it possible to go beyond the cliche? If so, how?

"I think my whole generation's mission is to kill the cliche." -- Beck

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Voodoo Attraction -- Writer's Poke #221

We walked into the shop and were overcome by the intense smell of incense. Dragon statues, pentagrams, herbs, and other stereotypically-wiccan paraphernalia were visible wherever the eye landed. But visible only in dim shadows as the outer windows of the store were covered with thick black drapes, and there weren't any florescent bulbs being used inside. The light seemed somehow organic, as though not coming from any discernible source.

My friends quickly tired of this store, but I found it compulsively fascinating. When they left to explore the next shop down the street, I stayed to talk to the shop mistress working behind the counter. She looked 16, but I'm sure she was in her mid-twenties. Her hair was jet black, her skin was pale, and the the inverted star necklace she wore around her neck was not an accessory common seen in central Illinois.

Around the corner and mostly out of sight was a man much older than her. I could sense that he was keeping watch over his "property," which included this girl. Noting the ring on her finger, I guessed that she was his wife, and speculated that he didn't like anyone chatting, no matter how innocently, about her background, her religion, or how she liked living in New Orleans.

What are you attracted to?

"We do not attract what we want, but what we are." -- James Lane Allen

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening Day -- Writer's Poke #220

Hard to believe, but it's been 25 years since I made my one and only pilgrimage to the Mecca for Chicago Cubs fans, Wrigley Field. To this day, I can still name more Cubbies from that season's squad than I can for all subsequent squads combined. The Cubs have had good teams since 1984, but perhaps this team stands out in my memory because it was the first good Cubs team in my lifetime.

As yet another baseball season begins, I doubt that I'll much care after opening day. Something about the first game of the season seems so vitally important, for about a second. Then, the realization soon kicks in that these guys will be playing another 160 games over the next six months. How much importance can any one game have in such a long season?

Some time in July, right around All-Star Break, I'll probably check in to see how the Cubs are doing. As long as they are ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals, I won't much care if they're in first- or next-to-last place.

If they somehow manage to make it to the playoffs, my excitement level won't be too high. How many times have they made it to the playoffs in the last 25 years, only to make a quick exit in the first series? Unfortunately, it's what all Cubs fans expect. We maintain hope, but as our president might say, we do so with a certain amount of audacity.

What is the value of watching sports, of having a favorite sports team? Do you find yourself cheering more for the winners or for the losers?

"I live and die with the Chicago Cubs." -- Sara Paretsky

Monday, April 6, 2009

Faith in Doubt -- Writer's Poke #219

The speaker (white, male, and past the prime of his life) moved from the shadows to the podium and began his talk. He wanted to impress upon his audience how important faith is.

Faith, he told those still awake, is what keeps us going. It is the belief that there is an ultimate answer. Doubt, on the other hand, is the opposite of faith. Doubt causes us to needlessly question what those with faith believe to be true. How dare they.

According to the speaker, faith and doubt cannot inhabit the mind simultaneously. You can have faith, or you can have doubt, but you simply cannot have both. One ends up consuming the other.

Oh really?

Can the mind only sustain faith or doubt, or is this a classic "either/or fallacy"? Assuming you can only have faith or doubt, which would you choose and why?

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Friday, March 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Quentin Taratino and Mariah Carey


I just noticed that Quentin and Mariah share a birthday today; note that the woman next to Quentin in the above picture is not Mariah. As far as I can tell, Mariah and Quentin live in parallel universes.
Quentin celebrates year 46, and Mariah remains the same: eternally 12.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stultify and Stupefy -- Writer's Poke #218

Stultify and Stupefy are two perfectly good verbs that have life only in song lyrics. I've never uttered them in a real conversation, nor do I know anyone that has.

Nevertheless, fans of Lisa Loeb and Disturbed (and yes, you can be a fan of both), recognize these words -- although they might not have an exact definition for them if asked what they mean.

I always assumed that "to stultify" meant basically to cause mental stagnation. As it turns out, this is the approximate second definition, but the first definition actually means "to make, or cause to appear foolish or ridiculous."

Stupefy sounds like it could refer to the word stupid, but the exact definition is more closely related to the word "stupor," as in to "put into a stupor."

Would you rather be stultified or stupefied? Take some time to develop and justify your response.

"The so-called clergy stupefy the masses....They befog the people and keep them in an eternal condition of stupefaction." -- Leo Tolstoy

"Laboring through a world every day more stultified, which expected salvation in codes and governments, ever more willing to settle for suburban narratives and diminished payoffs--what were the chances of finding anyone else seeking to transcend that, and not even particularly aware of it?" -- Thomas Pynchon

Friday, March 20, 2009

American Eyes -- Writer's Poke #217

Students in my Advanced Composition classes write argumentative essays; I tell them that I won't grade them on the position that they take, but I also remind that that not all positions are equal.

Some have difficulty taking a position at all. And when I remind them that they need to acknowledge and refute opposing points of view, sometimes they simply acknowledge all points of view without clearly staking their claim to one.

Not all positions are equally valid, however; this might sound rather subjective, but arguing, for example, that sweatshops are "good" is not really a defensible position to take. One student attempted to take that position, though, citing that it beat the alternatives. Sweatshops, for example, allowed the economies in third world countries to grow, gave the workers a living wage of $1 per day, and kept children from even worse fates, such as the sex trade.

He thought he was making a strong case.

How does being an American color ideas of right and wrong?

"America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy." -- John Updike