Monthly Archives: September 2011

What is Water?

What does it mean to “learn how to think”?  Is it just a cliché?  Or is there really something to it?

I remember my first day in my introduction to cultural anthropology class when my professor – one of two people I’ve come to consider as a mentor – told us that the purpose of higher education should not be to learn, but instead to unlearn everything we know…and then relearn it.  In essence, he felt that education at the university level should teach us to think critically, or analytically.  Since then, I’ve never had a single class that so drastically changed the way I see the world, and indeed, the way I think about things.

That professor recently shared an article that drives home a powerful point, a point which I’m sure the professor made clear in his class, but which I had since lost sight of.  It is namely that, we cannot only think critically about the “outside” world:  about how governments and other powerful institutions work; about how culture is formed, or what it all symbolizes; about how meanings are made; about the relationship between power, knowledge, and those meanings; about why humans do the things they do.  No, that is not enough.  As the following article makes clear, we must also learn how to think about the things that go on INSIDE our heads.  As David Wallace (the “author” of the article, which is actually the transcript of a commencement speech he gave) puts it, “ ‘learning to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.

Take seriously Wallace’s words; think about them .  They are not a manifesto, meant to dictate how we “should” live our lives.  They are more of an invitation…though, if he is to be taken seriously, his words are nothing short of an invitation to freedom.  That is, freedom from your own mind.  As he puts it, and I do agree with him, we are all naturally and almost unalterably self-centered.  After all, there is no experience that we have had, or will ever have, in which we are not the center of the universe; everything that we see, read, feel, hear, learn about, has to be processed and filtered, and understood inside our skulls, thus making our mind the center of (our) universe.  So, this self-centeredness is our “default setting.”

The point of “learning how to think,” then, is not only to question this default setting, but also to be able to exercise a certain amount of control over it…In essence, to take ourselves out of the center of all existence.  As Wallace puts it, it is no coincidence that we often refer to well-educated and sympathetic people as well adjusted.   They have learned to break out of the trance that is induced by the incessant monologue that goes on inside our heads, day-in and day-out.

How does all of this theoretical gobbldy-gook  translate into real-life application?  Because, that is after all, what’s most important.  To help the graduates he’s speaking to better grasp what he’s talking about, Wallace paints a very familiar scene:  You’ve just gotten off work, after a very long day, and you have to go to the grocery store to buy food for supper.  As soon as you enter, you realize that haggard old woman in front of you, pushing her cart so slowly, is in your way; and the kid chasing the bouncy-ball he just bought is getting on your nerves…You get the picture.  It seems as if those de-humanized globs of aggravation and sheer stupidity are simply there to make your day miserable.

Let me give another example from my own experience:  you’re heading to class – and you’re not even late; you make sure you leave with enough time – and then you get to campus and it seems that all 30,000 students have come to campus – in individual cars – at the same time and have taken up every single parking space – and the rest are circling around like freakin’ vultures waiting on a spot to open up.  They’re all frantically waiting to take your spot, to make you late.  Because, what do they have to do?  They’re just probably going to some stupid management class.  They’re not a TA who has to go impart wisdom about the history of world civilizations.  And then, because they didn’t recognize that the center of the universe itself needed a parking spot, they have put you in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Wallace says that this type of thinking is our default setting.  And in modern mass society, where there is so much inevitable interaction between all of us, this aggravation with other people is amplified by sheer number of interactions.  And so, we are doomed to be constantly aggravated and depressed unless we learn how to control what we think, and de-center our selves.  We cannot actually control what goes on in the outside world – but we can control how we think about it, how we interpret what happens.  Perhaps that cashier who didn’t tell you “thank you” kindly enough was too busy worrying about who was picking up her child from school.  Perhaps that kid who got to the parking spot first was on her way to taking one of the most important exams of her academic life.  As Wallace points out, these ‘rosier’ situations aren’t very likely – but they are indeed possible.  But if we choose to think of it in that way – if we control our thoughts to interpret it in that way – we have taken (even if momentarily) ourselves from the center of all being, recognized the humanity in another, and at the same time, saved ourselves a load of frustration and stress.

That is the freedom that Wallace is talking about.  The freedom to choose how you think about the world; to free yourself from the hum-drum of daily life.  The cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant, but a horrible master” then takes on a whole new dimension.

It is sad that I must add that Wallace’s commencement address is not being circulated around the internet because he just gave the speech.  No, unfortunately, he just died at the age of 46; apparently by suicide.  Perhaps he found it too difficult to master his own mind and reach a level of freedom and peace.  I will quit rambling now and let you read Wallace’s wonderful, direct, and powerful words:

(click picture above for link to original webpage)

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

If at this moment, you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me. As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about “teaching you how to think” is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: “Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. So let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in, day out” really means. There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.

Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious form of my default-setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are usually talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in a traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth…

Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to rush to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am — it is actually I who am in his way. Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have much harder, more tedious or painful lives than I do, overall.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Noah’s Freaks

In class this past week, we talked about the different ‘great flood’ stories that have been passed down for thousands of years in many different civilizations.  Of course, the two most famous flood stories for us in the West are probably the Biblical account in Genesis, and the flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Thinking about the Flood reminded me of a clip I saw on Robot Chicken several years ago.  Luckily someone else loved the clip enough to upload it to YouTube.

Ever wondered why certain “fantasy” creatures don’t exist anymore?  According to Robot Chicken’s Noah, it’s because “God hates freaks.”  Okay, before you get all offended, just watch the clip and chuckle a little.

Categories: Entertainment, Humor | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Snapshots of my Life

I’ve been many places and along the way I’ve seen some magnificent things.  On the other hand, right here in my home(s) I’ve seen some things that have either made me laugh, or just stop and stare, wondering, WTF? Luckily in this technology-steeped world, every cell phone is also a camera.  So, here are a few random snapshots from my life…some from the Deep South, others from the Buffalo Rust Belt. (You can click on each picture to enlarge it.)

I went to an amusement park about a month ago and saw this uber-patriotic couple strolling around, with Old Glory in places that I had never seen it before!  Now, take a look at the little boy checking out Lady Liberty.  You know what he’s thinking:  God Bless America!

The first leaves have started changing, and I know that Jack the Ripper, I mean Frost, is on his way to beat the life out of Buffalo again.  I saw this advertisement on the way to work and felt like driving straight to the airport…

I was wandering around one of the university libraries when I stumbled upon this door.  A treasure room?! Don’t mind if I do…Wait, what the hell is Halon 1301?! And why is it in the library?

Buffalo is known for it’s high fashion, I know.  And the city’s full of unique, one of a kind shops, such as Hair u Wear – which has mad styles of human hair, and precisely 307 styles of wigs.  Thank goodness.  308 might have been just too much to handle.

And while next door may only have 301 styles of wigs, Big Daddy has 1001 styles of human hair!  Boo-yah bitches!

I was just performing the normal procedure of surveying (the lot), praying (that that really is a parking spot, not just..shit! a small car), stalking (a student coming down the sidewalk from class), and protecting (your prey/student from other car-space predators) when I saw this good old fashioned meat wagon!  I applaud you sir.  You know that graduate school is a killer, and like a good boy scout, you came prepared.

You know you’re from the South when “doing yard work” involves cleaning out the old slave quarters/tenant house.

Hot Wings/Soul Food, BBQ Ribs, AND “Exotic Scents and Things” all in once place? (I had to resist any “pulled pork” jokes…) This must be heaven :D

I sat down in the lounge the other day to read and take some notes and then was struck before I sat down.  Who doesn’t take their notes on Adolf Hitler in a pink butterfly notebook?

Categories: Entertainment | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Random Thoughts from the folks of Generation Y

-I wish Google Maps had an “Avoid Ghetto” routing option.

-More often than not, when someone is telling me a story all I can think about is that I can’t wait for them to finish so that I can tell my own story that’s not only better, but also more directly involves me.

-Nothing sucks more than that moment during an argument when you realize you’re wrong.

-I totally take back all those times I didn’t want to nap when I was younger.

-Is it just me, or are 80% of the people in the “people you may know” feature on Facebook people that I do know, but I deliberately choose not to be friends with?

-Do you remember when you were a kid, playing Nintendo and it wouldn’t work? You take the cartridge out, blow in it and that would magically fix the problem. Every kid in America did that, but how did we all know how to fix the problem? There was no internet or message boards or FAQ’s. We just figured it out. Today’s kids are soft.

-There is a great need for sarcasm font.

-Sometimes, I’ll watch a movie that I watched when I was younger and suddenly realize I had no idea what the f was going on when I first saw it.

-I think everyone has a movie that they love so much, it actually becomes stressful to watch it with other people. I’ll end up wasting 90 minutes shiftily glancing around to confirm that everyone’s laughing at the right parts, then making sure I laugh just a little bit harder (and a millisecond earlier) to prove that I’m still the only one who really, really gets it.

-How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?

-I would rather try to carry 10 plastic grocery bags in each hand than take 2 trips to bring my groceries in.

– I think part of a best friend’s job should be to immediately clear your computer history if you die.

-The only time I look forward to a red light is when I’m trying to finish a text.

– A recent study has shown that playing beer pong contributes to the spread of mono and the flu. Yeah, if you suck at it.

– Was learning cursive really necessary?

– Lol has gone from meaning, “laugh out loud” to “I have nothing else to say”.

– I have a hard time deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.

– Whenever someone says “I’m not book smart, but I’m street smart”, all I hear is “I’m not real smart, but I’m imaginary smart”.

– How many times is it appropriate to say “What?” before you just nod and smile because you still didn’t hear what they said?

– I love the sense of camaraderie when an entire line of cars teams up to prevent a dick from cutting in at the front. Stay strong, brothers!

-What would happen if I hired two private investigators to follow each other?

– MapQuest really needs to start their directions on #5. Pretty sure I know how to get out of my neighborhood.

– Obituaries would be a lot more interesting if they told you how the person died.

– I find it hard to believe there are actually people who get in the shower first and THEN turn on the water.

-Shirts get dirty. Underwear gets dirty. Pants? Pants never get dirty, and you can wear them forever.

-I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t at least kind of tired.

– Bad decisions make good stories

-Whenever I’m Facebook stalking someone and I find out that their profile is public I feel like a kid on Christmas morning who just got the Red Ryder BB gun that I always wanted. 546 pictures? Don’t mind if I do!

– Is it just me or do high school girls get sluttier & sluttier every year?

-Why is it that during an ice-breaker, when the whole room has to go around and say their name and where they are from, I get so incredibly nervous? Like I know my name, I know where I’m from, this shouldn’t be a problem….

-You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work when you’ve made up your mind that you just aren’t doing anything productive for the rest of the day.

-There’s no worse feeling than that millisecond you’re sure you are going to die after leaning your chair back a little too far.

-I’m always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I want to save any changes to my ten page research paper that I swear I did not make any changes to.

– “Do not machine wash or tumble dry” means I will never wash this ever.

-I hate being the one with the remote in a room full of people watching TV. There’s so much pressure. ‘I love this show, but will they judge me if I keep it on? I bet everyone is wishing we weren’t watching this. It’s only a matter of time before they all get up and leave the room. Will we still be friends after this?’

-I hate when I just miss a call by the last ring (Hello? Hello? Dammit!), but when I immediately call back, it rings nine times and goes to voicemail.. What’d you do after I didn’t answer? Drop the phone and run away?

– I hate leaving my house confident and looking good and then not seeing anyone of importance the entire day. What a waste.

-I like all of the music in my iTunes, except when it’s on shuffle, then I like about one in every fifteen songs in my iTunes.

-Why is a school zone 20 mph? That seems like the optimal cruising speed for pedophiles…

– As a driver I hate pedestrians, and as a pedestrian I hate drivers, but no matter what the mode of transportation, I always hate cyclists.

-Sometimes I’ll look down at my watch 3 consecutive times and still not know what time it is.

-It should probably be called Unplanned Parenthood.

-I keep some people’s phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to answer when they call.

-Even if I knew your social security number, I wouldn’t know what do to with it.

-Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car keys in a pocket, hitting the G-spot, and Pinning the Tail on the Donkey – but I’d bet my ass everyone can find and push the Snooze button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time every time…

-It really pisses me off when I want to read a story on and the link takes me to a video instead of text.

-I wonder if cops ever get pissed off at the fact that everyone they drive behind obeys the speed limit.

-I think the freezer deserves a light as well.

-I disagree with Kay Jewelers. I would bet on any given Friday or Saturday night more kisses begin with Miller Lites than Kay.

-The other night I ordered takeout, and when I looked in the bag, saw they had included four sets of plastic silverware. In other words, someone at the restaurant packed my order, took a second to think about it, and then estimated that there must be at least four people eating to require such a large amount of food. Too bad I was eating by myself. There’s nothing like being made to feel like a fat bastard before dinner.

*I didn’t make these up – I got them from an email sent to me from a friend. I just hoped all of you would get as big a laugh from them as I did.*

Categories: Entertainment, Humor | 2 Comments

The Miniature Earth

If we could turn the population of the earth into a small community of 100 people, keeping the same proportions we have today, it would look something like this:

61 Asians

12 Europeans

14 Americans (from North and South America)

13 Africans

01 Australian (Oceania)

50 women

50 men

10 are homosexuals

33 are Christian (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox)

18 are Muslims

16 are Hindus

16 are non-religious

6 are Buddhists

11 practice other religions

41 live without basic sanitation

16 live without an improved water source

6 people own 59% of the entire wealth of the community

13 are hungry or malnourished

14 can’t read

only 7 are educated at a secondary level

only 8 have a computer

only 4 have an internet connection

1 adult, aged 15-49, has HIV/AIDS

Of the village’s total annual expenditures of just over US$3,000,000 per year:

US$ 181,000 is spent on weapons and warfare

US$ 159,000 is spent on education

US$ 132,000 is spent on health care

If you keep your food in a refrigerator, and your clothes in a closet…

If you have a roof over your head, and have a bed to sleep in…

You are richer than 75% of the entire world population.

If you have a bank account you’re one of the 30 wealthiest people in the community.

25 struggle to live on US$ 1.00 per day or less…

47 struggle to live on US$ 2.00 per day or less.


Work with passion

Love without needing to be loved

Appreciate what you have

And do your best for a better world.

*These statistics are from at least 5 years ago.  It would be interesting to see updated numbers, but I didn’t find any.*

Categories: Entertainment, Ideas & Philosophy | Tags: , | 2 Comments

A Corpse in My Bed

How often have you woken up and realized that you’re laying on someone else’s arm?  And then you try to push yourself off (while thinking, wait – was I sleeping with anyone?) and your heart starts beating faster because you realize you can’t push yourself up.

So, you bring your right arm around and roll yourself over to your back.  And then you FREAK OUT because you suddenly know that SOMEONE CUT OFF YOUR LEFT ARM!  Or maybe the boogey man IS real and he ripped your arm off.  Or maybe, as a poor grad student, you actually went through with that joke of selling your body parts on the black market.

But you know your arm is gone because not matter how many times your brain tells your arm to move, NOTHING happens.

And so, scared of what you’ll discover, you slowly reach over and grab the arm that’s lying next to you.  Your stomach churns, because whoever took your arm left the arm of some corpse lying in your bed.  You grab the wrist and pick it up (hoping beyond hope that you’ll feel something in your own left arm when your right one grabs the phantom limb—but you don’t) and now you just want to cry, because you’re holding a severed arm that falls limply to the bed when you let it go…all the while having no idea where your own arm is.

And then, in your hysteria, you roll over to get out of bed and run screaming through the hall, when you realize that the corpse-appendage has somehow been sadistically attached to your body!  And it’s following you no matter where you go!

But after about a minute of running around in tear-filled circles, something happens:  someone has put your arm back on – but they’re pouring hot water over it and stabbing it with twenty thousand hot needles.  And you look closely for the stitches, but then, huh – you see that this IS your own arm.

Then, where was it before?

And you stop running in circles – and finally the rational part of your brain decides to wake up.  Your arm is there.  You had just been laying on it.  It was asleep.  or, beyond asleep actually.  Phew.  Crisis averted.

And then you look around to make sure no one saw your hysterical break down of panic.  The clock tells you it’s only 2:47am – YES!  You get to go back to sleep.  You crawl back into bed, pull the covers up, and then, it’s almost like instinct, you roll over…onto your left arm.

Categories: Entertainment, Humor | 1 Comment

The German Coast Guard

I’m in the midst of preparing for the TestDaF exam, which I’ll have to take in late November.  The TestDaf (Test Deutsch als Fremdsprache – the Test for German as a Foreign Language) is an institutionalized language exam that people have to pass if they wish to work, study, or teach in Germany.  It is similar to English’s TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language), which many of my international friends had to endure.

Part of a Ph.D. program in history of foreign areas is being able to speak that language – so you can research original documents, and not have to rely on translations.  So, by the end of this semester, I have to prove to the UB Department of History that I can speak German.  And lucky me, the German historians at UB are stricter than the others and instead of testing me themselves (as is normal), they told me I have to pass the TestDaf.

But the fun thing is that the closest testing center to Buffalo is Toronto, Canada.  So, it’s looking like a road trip!

While studying German was on my mind, I remembered this video, “the German Coast Guard.”  It was shown to me by one of my favorite professors – and one of my favorite persons – of all time.  “Ol Mike.”


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The Reformation of the Dead

This is a short easy to read book – but probably more for people who are particularly interested, because it has a rather narrow focus (that’s probably because it was Koslofsky’s dissertation).  And if it sounds like something you’re interested in, you’ll probably have to hunt it down at your local public library (or even your local university library), because the cheapest I found it for sale online is $140!

Craig M. Koslofsky, The Reformation of the Dead:  Death and Ritual in Early Modern Germany, 1540-1700 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

“Oh Lord Jesus!  Take my spirit up to you!”  These were the last words of the sixteenth century Lutheran bishop Hermann Bonnus (1).  His brother, Gerlach, had stayed with him throughout the night, praying for him until he died.  But once Hermann died, Gerlach’s praying stopped.  In his book, Craig Koslofsky uses this cessation of prayer at the moment of death to symbolize the most profound and lasting effect of the Protestant Reformation:  the radical separation of the dead from the world of the living.  Koslofsky utilizes primary sources to show that this was not just a spiritual separation; he also asserts that by studying cemetery location and burial rituals, one may ascertain that the Reformation thinkers also meant to physically separate the living from the dead.

The Reformation of the Dead opens by providing the reader with not only the historiography on the subject, but also by supplying an anthropological approach to the study of death and ritual.  Koslofsky contends that because death was such a ubiquitous burden in the sixteenth century (manifested by high mortality rates), the investigation of both the history behind and the anthropological significance of death and burial rituals can offer a unique window into that society.  It is with this theoretical understanding that Koslofsky moves forward into his material.

Part one of the book deals with the clear severance of the dead from the different spheres of everyday life.  Koslofsky begins with the spiritual separation of those who had left this world.  The Protestant notion that one could reach salvation through faith alone placed the majority of responsibility on the individual.  At the same, it inherently called into question the earlier practice of intercession.  For if all responsibility was now on the individual, the prayers of the living and the intercession of the saints on behalf of the deceased was now irrelevant to a soul’s salvation.  The effects of this change in ideology manifested themselves most obviously in the way the Reformation leaders dealt with the idea Purgatory.  Since the twelfth century, Purgatory had been viewed as a necessary place of postmortem purification, a stage between death and the eternal afterlife in which the prayers of the living and the saints helped determine how long a soul would linger before passing on.  Koslofsky argues that, contrary to popular belief, the first step Protestants took to reconcile Purgatory with their conceived impossibility of intercession was not to abolish Purgatory altogether.  Leaders like Gansfort, Karlstadt, and Luther did not deny Purgatory; they just asserted that it was a place of purification and no one, not even the Church, could affect the state of the souls there (34).  It was not until two decades into the Reformation that Luther renounced the existence of Purgatory, claiming instead that souls “slept” after death until they “awoke” at the Day of Judgment.  In face of the disputes in the early years of the Reformation on the adaptation or existence of Purgatory, there was one point of agreement among German reformers: the separation of the dead from the living.

Next, Koslofsky addresses the placement of cemeteries in the effort to physically remove the dead from the world of the living.  Traditionally, it was customary to bury the deceased within the city walls in the church graveyard.  In the thirteenth century, the Black Death brought temporary periods of extramural burials for sanitary reasons, but by the sixteenth century, growing populations and greater concern for hygiene meant that it was slowly becoming the norm to bury the dead in cemeteries outside of the city.  In 1527, Luther added a religious element to the debate:  since intercession and burial masses were irrelevant, so was where you were buried (46).  A body’s spatial nearness to the church now played no role, so Protestant leaders supported the medical argument for extramural burial, because it simultaneously added a very visual emphasis of the separation of the living and the dead.

In part two of his book, Koslofsky discusses the affects these theological views of death had on the funeral and burial rituals.  The reformation did away with all of the traditional burial rituals, most notably the funeral mass for its emphasis on intercession.  It was not clear at first, however, with which rituals the old ones should be replaced.  It was not until 1550 that new Lutheran funeral rituals were in place:  a cleric-led funeral procession to the gravesite in which members of the community took part, and the cemetery sermon that focused on honoring the life of the deceased.

Koslofsky then highlights another interesting turn of events in the history of the Lutheran funeral in seventeenth century Germany.  He explains how a more private, nocturnal burial without the presence of clerics, which was once reserved for dishonorable burials, became the funeral of choice for the noble class.  By 1700, this nocturnal funeral, known as a Beisetzung, had spread from being the preference of the elite class to that of all classes (148).  A century later, the daylight funeral became the norm again, but according to Koslofsky, the effect of the Beisetzung – a funeral centered on family rather than the church and Christian community – had become permanent for Protestant funerals.

One critique of the book states that Koslofsky goes too far in giving credit to the Reformation for the move to extramural burials.  However, Koslofsky makes it clear that Protestant leaders never claimed that it was the Reformation that prompted extramural cemeteries.  In fact, Koslofsky argues that it was Catholic opposition that tried to tie extramural burial with the cause of the Reformation.

Despite this criticism, the research presented in The Reformation of the Dead provides unique insight into Germany during the Protestant Reformation.  Koslofsky’s work is well written and employs a wide range of primary sources, such as city ordinances, burial records, as well as personal letters and church visitation reports, to present a comprehensive view of the debate over death and burial rituals.  He then calls on experts from the field of anthropology to help explain the different ideological and material changes that separated the living from the dead.

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Separating the Moment from What Came After

As we remember the victims today, also remember the historical context in which the attacks took place…

Separating the Moment from What Came After

by Serge Schmemann, NY Times

A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a stack of drawings and poems in the mail. They were by schoolchildren whose teacher had given them the lead article from The New York Times about the attacks and told them to write and illustrate a poem. Because I wrote the piece, she sent them to me. Many of the children picked up on my description of the planes as “gorged” with fuel, and their jets were huge and red, dwarfing the doomed black towers before them. Some of the drawings also had disproportionately huge stick figures falling from the towers.

I thought it was wise of the teacher to help the children come to grips with horror this way. That’s how we all struggle with sudden and enormous terror, searching for images and words that might help us fit the event into a framework we can understand. From the time the first hijacked jet ripped into the north tower of the World Trade Center, we had to find ways to explain and describe an event whose enormity and evil were almost beyond understanding. Crisis focuses the mind on the immediate tasks at hand, but it was hard that day to fend off thoughts of the final, horrifying moments of those people in the planes and the buildings before they died.

I had covered several suicide bombings in Israel before 9/11, and I always admired the way Israelis rushed to clear away the carnage and reimpose “normal” life, as if to say you can hurt us, but you will not change us. And I had always wondered how Americans would react if it happened to us.

We can certainly be proud of the dignity with which New Yorkers, and Americans, and much (alas, not all) of the world responded that day, whether it was the police and firefighters who rushed to the scene, or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani taking charge, or the thousands of people who lined up to give blood until the hospitals could accept no more. At The Times, several reporters commuted to ground zero by bicycle, showing up in the newsroom covered with ash and sweat to file a report and then heading back into the hell. Yet I also remember, monitoring the rush of information in the newsroom, a sense of shame that our president chose to fly around in silence all day, as if his safety was more important than standing with his badly wounded nation.

And how should we assess our actions since? Millions of words are being written around this 10th anniversary about the meaning and the legacy of that day; on its consequences for America and the world; on whether Americans rose to the challenge; on whether we got suckered into needless wars and, worse, into betraying our values; on whether we have become nobler or meaner.

There is a lot to criticize and regret. But can we really determine at this stage to what degree 9/11 was a cause, a symptom or a harbinger of all that has come to pass over the last decade? Perhaps if it had not happened, Americans would not have consented so readily to the erosion of their cherished liberties, and we might not have become so obsessed with homeland security. But in many other ways the world was already in flux since the end of the cold war a decade earlier. The Bush administration was already beginning to irritate the world, and already plotting a war in Iraq; the Middle East, as usual, was smoldering.

The fact is that that single day soon became associated in our national narrative with all that has happened — the military quagmires in the Middle East, the resentment of the Islamists, the decline of American global authority, the erosion of American self-confidence. Like “the fall of the Berlin Wall” a decade earlier, “9/11” has become shorthand for a momentous shift in geopolitical tectonics.

But this is not what comes to my mind when I think back on that day. I see the long river of ashen, dazed people flowing up 11th Avenue as I made my way down to Times Square. I recall the brilliant clarity of that morning, which must have made it easier for those murdering pilots.

Most often, I don’t know why, I recall the subway ride home in the small hours of the morning. A woman sitting near me began humming loudly. My first, shameful reaction was damn, who needs this? But then a man across the aisle, slumped in his seat in exhaustion, began humming along. Someone else joined in, and soon I, too, closed my eyes and let the music take over. Drained of emotion and thought, we surrendered to the refuge of sweet harmony.

Within days, the first massive cranes were rumbling past my windows on their way to ground zero. Acrid fumes from the smoking ruins moved through the city with the shifting winds. American flags appeared in windows. From Washington there came talk of war. We were in a new era, which 10 years later we are still trying to define.

Categories: History | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

How 9/11 Changed Us: Mike Spann

On this 10th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I want to share this USA Today with you.  It’s from the same article as the three I’ve shared earlier this week.  However, this ones follows the story of Mike Spann, the first American casualty in Afghanistan.  

Mike Spann poses with his children Allison, 9, right, Emily, 3, left and Jake, 6 months, taken at their home in Manassas, Va., the day he left for Afghanistan in October 2001.

Mike Spann: First to fall in Afghanistan

A 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer, Johnny “Mike” Spann goes to Afghanistan after 9/11 to fight the Taliban, the Islamist regime that provided al-Qaeda with a base from which to attack the U.S. He’s at one of the crucial battles of the war, then becomes its first American combat fatality — and an inspiration to his Alabama hometown.

By Rick Hampson USA TODAY

9.11.2001: More than most Americans, Mike Spann, a CIA paramilitary officer and former Marine officer, realizes life has been changed by the terror attacks. He knows the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against those who sheltered him in Afghanistan will demand the skills of people like him.

9.19.2001: Spann e-mails his father, Johnny, in Winfield, Ala., his feelings about the coming war: “Support your government and military, especially when bodies start coming home. Our way of life is at stake. We must fight for it. … What everyone needs to understand is these fellows hate you. They hate you because you are an American.”

10.1.2001: Spann prepares to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside the anti-TalibanNorthern Alliance. He has decided to volunteer even though he is married (to a fellow CIA employee) and the father of three young children. He tells his father that after the attacks by al-Qaeda, which operated from Afghanistan with the consent of the Taliban regime, he owes it not just to his nation, but to his family.

10.18.2001: Shannon Spann, Mike’s wife, spends a typical night at home in Northern Virginia with the children. She helps one child with homework, reads the Bible and thinks about Mike’s safe return, writing in her journal, “I can’t wait until we’re all together.” She is caring for Mike’s two daughters from his first marriage — Alison, 9, and Emily, 4 — as well as her son with Mike, 6-month-old Jake.

11.24.2001: For weeks, Spann has been with the Northern Alliance, traveling through rugged and dangerous terrain, sometimes on horseback. With their military situation in northern Afghanistan becoming critical, hundreds of pro-Taliban fighters — most of them non-Afghans — surrender near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

11.25.2001: Mike Spann is interrogating POWs at a makeshift jail. He tries without success to question an English-speaking prisoner whom he does not realize is a fellow American: John Walker Lindh.

Moments later, a riot breaks out. Spann is killed in the fighting, becoming the war’s first U.S. combat fatality.

12.1.2001: Winfield, a Bible Belt town of about 5,000, mourns the loss of a local hero. Spann is remembered as an all-American kid who got good grades in school, went to church and on weekends drank a little beer and raised a little hell. Once distant, “the conflict has become very personal,” writes editor Tracy Estes in the local Journal Record.

12.6.2001: Spann is remembered at a church memorial service in Winfield. His daughter Alison is accompanied by her grandfather to the altar, where he reads a letter she’s written: “Daddy, I will miss you dearly. I will miss you, but I know you’re going to a better place. Thank you for making the world a better place. Love, your dear daughter Alison.” Later, she places the letter in her father’s casket.

12.10.2001: Spann is buried in Section 34, site 2359, at Arlington National Cemetery. Wife Shannon tells mourners that after the 9/11 attacks “he didn’t separate serving his country from serving his family. When Mike took the oath to defend the Constitution … he took that oath to our family as well. He just really thought it was his duty as a father to protect his children from terrorists.”

2.13.2002: The father of accused Taliban member John Walker Lindh is rebuffed when he tries to shake hands with Mike Spann’s father, Johnny. After his son’s arraignment in Alexandria, Va., Frank Lindh approaches Spann. But Spann does not shake his hand. Spann and Mike’s mother later tell reporters the defendant is a traitor. They believe their son died as the result of a prisoners’ plot of which Lindh must have been aware. A news video has surfaced that shows Spann talking to Lindh shortly before the riot.

7.15.2002: Lindh pleads guilty to charges with maximum penalties of 20 years. The plea bargain, which stuns a packed courtroom, averts a trial on 10 counts that could have brought life in prison. Lindh, 21, admits to U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III that he illegally supported the Taliban as an infantryman. Shannon Spann says that in pleading guilty, Lindh “agreed with the government that his conduct was terrorist activity.” But Spann’s father says his son and other Americans battling terrorists “have been let down.”

10.4.2002: At Lindh’s sentencing, Johnny Spann says Lindh bears some responsibility for his son’s death: “My grandchildren would love to know their dad would be back in 20 years. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.” Ellis says he wouldn’t have approved the plea bargain if the government showed any evidence of his culpability in Spann’s death. A teary Lindh tells Ellis he had “no role” in it.

9.14.2003: A new biography of Lindh questions whether he was really unaware of plans for the prison rebellion in which Spann was killed. Mark Kukis writes in My Heart Became Attached: The Strange Journey of John Walker Lindh: “It seems impossible that (Lindh) would not have known people in the (prison) basement were armed and plotting a revolt when he sat before Spann, saying nothing that might warn Spann.”

12.18.2007: Mike Spann’s father says he opposes an attempt by Lindh’s parents to getPresident Bush to commute their son’s 20-year sentence and set him free.

5.28.2010: Alison Spann graduates from high school in Winfield, where she lives with her grandparents. People remember the words Alison wrote for her father’s memorial service, and that his death was not her last tragedy. Shortly after he was killed, her mother, Johnny’s ex-wife, died of cancer.

6.7.2010: Afghanistan passes Vietnam as America’s longest continuous war. In Winfield, people remember the war’s first U.S. fatality. Almost everyone appreciates Mike Spann’s sacrifice, but they disagree on whether the war should continue.

Spann’s father says it’s imperative to keep the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan before 9/11, out of power. Dale Weeks, one of Mike’s boyhood friends, isn’t so sure: “It’s time to start bringing people home. We’ve done about all we can do.”

Categories: History, Politics/Current Events | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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