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:

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