Monday, June 28, 2010

It's the Little Things - Like Toothpicks made in China

The Broken Toothpick

There's a stoplight by my apartment that is green for 7 seconds. Maybe three cars can get through that light on any given cycle. It must be about 30 seconds going the other way. On a real good day, I round the bend on Gary Street, and will hit that green light, and be on my way -- that should be a 1 in 4 chance given the time ratios, but history says it's more like 1 in 20. I'll usually have to sit there for an entire light cycle before I can be on my way. When I make that light, I have this feeling that it's going to be a good day......

A secret pleasure of mine is be be driving along a stretch of road at the same time as an aggressive driver. The other driver accelerates madly from each stop light and weaves in and out of traffic trying to gain that extra car length, that extra 3 or 4 seconds. I will attempt to maintain a modest rate of speed and accelerate gently and gradually slow for traffic signals so that I am "timing" them correctly. The secret pleasure is, by judicious and careful driving, to pass that same driver who zoomed by me several blocks before who is now stuck in a traffic lane waiting for the driver in front of him to turn. I like that.

I also like playing the game of golf. I was once a near scratch golfer, but now have a handicap of 6 or so. I like hitting a sweet shot -- a crisp iron to a green, a well played lag putt, a chip that flirts with the cup, or that 1 in 5 drive that I hit with that beautiful low draw trajectory that gobbles up those extra ground yards. On my best days, I can still score around par, but my scoring average is definitely creeping upward as I near age 60. I had a streak of about 30 years or so where I had at least one under par round of golf every year...and some years several under part rounds... I've had par rounds the last three years, but haven't been able to get that under par round. My family likes to wish me "subpar" rounds of golf......their humor is to be appreciated. An underestimated aspect of golf courses is that they are usually quite pretty. It does make for a lovely walk!

I like a good snack -- a favorite of mine is a few slices of a sharp dry cheddar cheese, a few green olives, perhaps a bite or two of pickled herring, and a few crackers. Man is that good! I like the Greek Kalamata olives especially, either black or green. That briny vinegary taste balances nicely with the cheddar. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it......

I enjoy a good book, too. I'm currently reading Steven Pinker's "The Language Instinct," Joseph Heller's "God Knows," an Agatha Christie mystery, Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," James Joyce's "Ulysses,", William Least Heat Moon's "Blue Highways," and Bill Moyers' "Genesis: A Living Conversation." I pick them up at different times and wander through them. "Genesis" is an interesting read - see my previous blog. The Cain and Abel story is still something of a mystery for me. It appears to me that modern scholarship provides the meaning to the story that is not inherent to the story itself - which I can live with.

On the other hand, I had an existential crisis yesterday. I was at a wedding reception for my nephew and his lovely bride and was nibbling my hors d'ouvres using a provided toothpick with the colored cellophane-esque material wrapped around one end. Cellophane, if the material was indeed cellophane, is made from cellulose from wood, cotton, hemp, or other sources which is dissolved in alkali and carbon disulfide to make a solution called viscose, which is then extruded through a slit into a bath of dilute sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate to reconvert the viscose into cellulose. The film is then passed through several more baths, one to remove sulfur, one to bleach the film, and one to add glycerin to prevent the film from becoming brittle. That all seems pretty high tech for that little bit of decoration on the end of a toothpick.

The toothpicks were a long variety - maybe 3 1/2 inches long. According to an online encylopedia American wooden toothpicks are cut from birch wood. "Logs are first spiral cut into thin sheets, which are then cut, chopped and milled into the individual toothpicks. Maine is the leading producer of toothpicks for the United States. Worldwide, Brazil has the highest export rate of toothpicks. However, in the recent years, China has overtaken Brazil's toothpick industry bringing in approximately US$24 billion per year from the export of toothpicks."

So there I was nibbling on a very tasty piece of beef, using the toothpick to pick up another bite, when the toothpick broke. It broke right in half, one piece at right angles to the other hinged in the middle with that one strand of toothpick still unbroken. I hadn't used excessive force I thought. I wasn't being overly agressive in picking up that Nebraska beef morsel with the rich brown gravy. It had worked fine on my cheese and melon cubes. But there I was with that broken toothpick wanting another bite of my hors d'ouvres. I said to my brother, "My toothpick broke." I went on to explain that it was the little things in life, the small aggravations, that we notice most - a hair on the toothbrush that ends up stuck in between teeth when brushing, or that you can feel with your tongue, but can't quite grab with your fingers to remove. Or going to the refrigerator for a glass of milk, only to discover that the last half inch of milk in the bottom of the jug doesn't quite smell right. Or I drop the last M & M down the gap between the seat cushion and the arm of my Brown Leather Barcalounger Recliner Chair and can't find it without upending the chair and shaking it out of there. When these little things in life go awry, they grate on our very existence, and are a sign that our civilization is on the verge of collapse.

Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death - the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Anti-Christ, socialism, and government guaranteed health insurance. Life as we know it - gone forever.

That broken toothpick did it for me...... My brother suggested that I could get another toothpick. Just like a guy to not deal with my feelings on the matter, but to instead jump way ahead to a "solution" to the problem. Hey, I've read "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus." Anyway, he said it like getting another toothpick was a solution to the real problem.

I can only assume that the toothpick was made in China.......or Brazil.

Alright, gotta go.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In the Garden of Eden with a Snake

I've been trying to figure out the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and I have to confess it makes no sense to me. There's no Biblical context, or metaphoric way, or analogical way, that this story makes sense. The Garden of Eden story makes sense as a creation myth and "what the heck we are doing here anyway?" story. The Garden of Eden story makes sense as a "conciousness" metaphor -- becoming aware of our mortality and our capacity for doing really crappy stuff to each other. Perhaps the Cain Abel story is simply an example of our capacity to murder each other for the most specious of reasons. Like the Smothers Brothers - "Mom always liked you best." But I think there should be more to it. The Garden of Eden story has more going for it -- Garden story sets the stage for us, though, in a metaphorically conceivable way, the creation of the universe and how we got here.

So now we sit here in our blissful serenity Garden- between catastrophes of our own making or others'- wars, plagues, famines, genocide. Nuclear warheads pointed at each other. Biological weapons stored in "secure" facilities. Sure..... Global warming, the large Hadron collector, engineered viruses, giant solar storms -- any one of which could do us in. We sit here between asteroid collisions which have eliminated virtually all life on the planet numerous times. We sit here between ice ages and stifling deserts and inland seas. We blithely sit here virtually on top of supervolcanoes (Yellowstone National Park, Long Valley in California, Valles Caldera in its own National Preserve) and other not so super volcanoes - Naples, Mount Shasta. We turn these end-all-life-as-we-know-it sites into recreation areas and camp on them and roast marshmallows and sing songs..... Talk about whistling past the graveyard!

We are miraculously/accidentally (it depends on your point of view more than anything as far as I can tell) created on a planet just far enough away, but not too far away, from the sun, so that the planet supports liquid water. There are no threatening gamma ray bursters that we know about in the immediate 200 light year radius of earth. Our sun won't fizzle out for another 5 billion years or so...... Stephen Hawking says we need to beware of mean aliens -- as if we could do anything about a species that could interstellar travel to visit us.

Humanity seems to have become aware of itself only as recently as 1300 BCE (according to Jayne's theory of conciousness). So it's not that we've been sitting around for all that long contemplating our navels. If it weren't for the a slight imbalance of matter and anti-matter during the first trillionth of a second of our universe, none of this would matter because we wouldn't be here in the first place.

Some say conciousness was achieved earlier (in 2001 A Space Odyssey a chimp like creature, named Cain perhaps, smashes another on the head, Abel perhaps)- but at best in the scheme of things, a 4 billion year old planet in a 14 billion old universe, it's like conciousness happened this morning at 10:30.... And even that's not universally accepted: quoting from a Huffington Post article, "As Marvin Minsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cognitive scientist and artificial intelligence expert, put it more crudely, "The brain is just a computer made of meat." Nobel Prize winning Francis Crick, British molecular biologist, physicist, and neuroscientist, went further. In his subsequent book Of Molecules and Men, he wrote, "The ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry" -- to analyze, in other words, the meat. And lest there be no doubt about where he stands, philosopher Dennett says, "We're all zombies. Nobody is conscious." So much for Descartes - "I think; therefore, I am."

Even if we posit "conciousness" to ourselves, we get only a sliver of time to provide sense and meaning to each other --40 years maybe. We get a glimpse of our mortality just in the nick of time. We spend the first part of our lives oblivious to our own mortality, and the middle part fighting it, and the last few trying to avoid it and/or welcoming it.....

We must have been created in order to create meaning, I think; or at least, that's what makes sense to me for the slice of time we are here. I may work on a Cain and Abel painting; or like I like to say, "When all else fails, I always say, paint a flower."