A word or two about distance

I’m reading a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. I’m not too far into it yet, but so far I’m struck by a couple of things. First, he’s got a nice, easy-going style that manages to take complex thoughts, break them down into digestible pieces, and does so in a voice that’s both engaging and funny. I dig it.

The second thing is this: there’s a veritable ass-ton of things I don’t know.

Take the following excerpt from the chapter describing our Solar System:

Now the other thing you will notice as we speed past Pluto is that we are speeding past Pluto. If you check your itenerary, you will see that this is a trip to the edge of our solar system, and I’m afraid we’re not there yet. Pluto may be the last object marked on schoolroom charts, but the system doesn’t end there. In fact, it isn’t even close to ending there. We won’t get to the solar system’s edge until we have passed through the Oort cloud, a vast celestial realm of drifting comets, and we won’t reach the Oort cloud for another – I’m so sorry about this – ten thousand years. Far from marking the outer edge of the solar system, as those schoolroom maps so cavalierly imply, Pluto is barely one-fifty-thousandth of the way.

Balls.

More to come.

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Bonsai

This image found its way into my inbox under the title of, “a little something to inspire you.” I’ve been thinking about it off and on for the last couple of days and I keep coming back to a phrase I picked up in Japan years ago: Mono no aware. Loosely translated, it means ‘the sadness of the transience of things.’

In other words, things don’t last. 

The brief moments when all is still, music plays softly in the background, and you and your wife cuddle and chat on the couch. Or the bright, sweet smile of your new baby (you know, before they learn the word “no”). Or the taste of a perfectly prepared filet. Or a night out with friends that’s both easy and wonderful. Or whatever. The phrase above tells us that those lovely moments, even when they’re measured in days or weeks or years, will, at some point, trail behind you in the rearview.

Compare that with a conversation I had on Twitter recently that ended with my friend writing, “this too shall pass.” She was having a bad day where everything seemed to go just about as wrong as it could and the only thing she wanted to do was close the book on the day, go to bed, and start over the next morning.

But you have to wonder – how much energy and time and engagement are wasted or lost as we look ahead or behind instead of paying attention to the now? Note to self: kiss your wife, play with your kids, and don’t waste today. It’s not coming back.

image by zest-pk

The lies we tell

Rummaging around my bookmarks not long ago I found a little treat I’d set aside to read. It’s the homepage of a writer named Paul Graham and you could do worse than spend a bit of time reading his essays. One in particular, titled “Lies we tell kids,” dovetails nicely with the thinking I’ve done about the challenging, inevitable conversations I’ll be having with my daughters in the years to come. You know what I mean – the conversations where they’ll ask if I’ve ever smoked, experimented in other, let’s say less legal pastimes, and how I’m going to handle those questions.

I’ve pulled out one of the paragraphs from Mr. Graham’s essay below but you can find the entire piece here. Definitely worth your time. If you’re interested, I originally stumbled on his work from a list Inc. Magazine put together – 19 blogs you should bookmark right now – and you can find that here

For you parents who have already crossed that bridge, how did you handle it? Or, for those of you like me who are still on the front end, how do you think you will?

“Innocence is also open-mindedness. We want kids to be innocent so they can continue to learn. Paradoxical as it sounds, there are some kinds of knowledge that get in the way of other kinds of knowledge. If you’re going to learn that the world is a brutal place full of people trying to take advantage of one another, you’re better off learning it last. Otherwise you won’t bother learning much more.”

2010

A great writer named Chris Brogan provides, in one of his many, many posts about the topic, a list of ways to improve your blog. I’ll try to find the specific post I’m talking about shortly, but the list I’m referring to offers dozens of pointers on the subject and includes ideas like keep it short, use smart headlines/titles, link often, engage with your audience, and so on. The one that I’m thinking about right now actually goes something a little like this:

Stifle, with wild abandon, the urge to begin any post with, “I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while.”

Yeah, sorry about this, Chris.

So I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. I can give you sound, reasonable explanations for my absence (a bizarre and somewhat ironic twist at work, surgery, the loss of a family member, the stress that inevitably goes hand-in-hand with the holidays, and on) but baseline is the fact that I just didn’t get here.

In fact, it’s quite possible that writing about some of those things above would have been helpful. As to whether or not they’d be interesting I couldn’t say. Regardless, it’s now a new year and one (of the many) things I’d like to do this year is post with a little more regularity. 

So, old friends, stay tuned. If there’s a topic you’d like to see addressed here don’t hesitate to let me know. For now, I’d like to know about the things you’re going to work on this year. What does 2010 have in store for you?

The man and the flood

You’ve probably heard this story before:

A man, at home during a storm, hears an emergency broadcast over the radio that warns of an impending flood and instructs everyone to evacuate. But he’s a religious man, and sure that God will save him, so he decides to stay. The minutes pass, and as the waters begin to rush into his home he’s forced to move to his roof. 
A short time later, a boat pulls up next to the house and the crew shouts for the man to join them.
“No,” he shouts back, “I’m a religious man. I pray. God will save me.”
As the boat pulls away, the water begins to pour over the eaves. 
A helicopter then appears overhead and the pilot shouts down to the man, “Let me throw you a rope and pull you up!”
“No,” he shouts again, “I’m a religious man. I pray. God will save me.”
But as the helicopter flies away the waters swallow the house, and sweep the man away.
When he arrived in heaven, the man demanded to speak to God.
“Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man. I pray. Why didn’t you save me?”
God looked down to the man and said, “I sent you a radio broadcast, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you expect me to do?”

I heard this story again watching an old episode of West Wing a couple of weeks ago. The bulk of the episode followed the President as he agonized over the decision of whether or not to grant a stay of execution. Each of the three people he talked to over the course of the show told him that capital punishment was, for various reasons, wrong and that he should make the call. And while he agreed, he ultimately decided he couldn’t justify a stay based solely on his feelings.

Shortly after the prisoner was executed, the President sat with his old parish priest and expressed his frustration with God. “I prayed, Father, I really did. But nothing came.”

The priest, Father Cavanaugh, then told him the story you read above. When he had finished he said, “Mr. President, God sent you a Rabbi, a Quaker,  and a priest. What more did you expect him to do?”

A little more than three weeks ago, John Allen Muhammad – the “D.C. Sniper” – was executed in Virginia by lethal injection. His accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, will spend the rest of his life in prison. It’s been reported that Muhammad was silent throughout the process. He refused to acknowledge questions or the gallery; completely silent until pronounced dead.

Good riddance, you might say.

Me, I’m with Father Cavanaugh, the Rabbi, the Quaker, and the priest. I think the death penalty is just wrong. And while I could give you a host of logical, rational reasons why I feel that way, chances are the impact of those arguments would be very little if your beliefs swing the other way.

Meaning, if I were to show you data that unequivocally proves a black man is far more likely to be given the death penalty than a white man, for the same crime, that information probably wouldn’t change your mind. If I were to show you that an unattractive woman is more likely to be given the death penalty than a pretty, dimpled lass, that wouldn’t change your mind either.

In other words, the fact that our judicial system dispenses punishment unequally probably wouldn’t be enough to change your mind if you favored the death penalty.

So I’ve been thinking about hypocrisy.

Keep in mind, I’m fully aware this is a pretty massive generalization, but in many cases if you favor the death penalty there’s also a pretty good chance you’re pro-life. And I just don’t get it.

It’s okay to kill here, but not there. This is justified, and that’s a sin. One right and one wrong.

To be fair, I’m fully aware that the hypocrisy swings both ways. Like many of my ilk, I’m both pro-choice and anti death penalty. Again, like above, death is okay here but not here. My only explanation is that my beliefs for both are founded on the rational rather than the spiritual. Take that for what you will.

So I’d like your opinions. How do so many of us justify these contradictory beliefs?