November 21, 2007

OK, so, I’m watching this Discovery Channel thing on Hippos. There are two male hippos, one the dominant male of the herd, the other a challenger. They are standing there, jaws agape, grunting wetly, magnificently.

I realize that I sound just like them.

There I am, a stocking cap jammed down over my ears. I have a sweatshirt on over my T-shirt and sweatpants so loose and comfy that they require clip-on suspenders to keep them up. And long woolen slipper socks that I haven’t worn since the last time I had a cold.

Yep. A cold.

I don’t know why it is that men suffer so grandly with colds, but we surely do make a production out of it. Think of it as performance art.

Women, on the other hand, may make mention of the fact that they have a cold or flu, usually when passing by on their way to the store or a business appointment, with the same sort of look in their eyes as kamikaze pilots.

No sense of drama.

I think this probably goes back to the days of our ancestors, in the days of caves and stone tools. Women had to watch the kids, gather nuts and berries or whatever, and keep the home fires burning. Literally.

Guys, on the other hand, probably did all the hunting, which meant leaving home and staying out in the field, whooping it up with one another and sticking sharp sticks into wild animals so they could bring home the bacon. Also literally.

 So, see, when we guys got sick, we had better really BE sick. I mean, if we’re lying around in the cave catching some extra ZZZZ’s, we’d better have a good excuse for why we aren’t out there annoying the protein.

So, we suffered. We honked and groaned and shuffled around like so many dyspeptic wooly mammoths, eyes and noses red. Heartbreaking.

I suspect that males who got colds but didn’t really SEEM all that sick got chased out of the cave by the womenfolk and made to go hunt anyway, where they probably met some terrible fate because they sneezed or waved their hankie at the wrong moment. Or they got whacked on the head at home and became the bacon. Times were hard.

So, yeah, I have a cold. I’m making a lot of noise, moan and whimper, make pathetic snurfling noises, my eyes tragic with misery. It’s a long tradition. So have some sympathy. And please, don’t throw me out there with the saber-toothed tigers.


The Blue Mote

November 11, 2007

NOTE: This column is an excerpt from a longer piece with the working title “I Believe.”At the rate I am going, I will likely finish the longer piece when I am 80.



On Valentine’s Day, 1990, astronomer Carl Sagan talked NASA engineers into turning the Voyager I spacecraft around, so it could take a picture of Earth from way out on the rim of our solar system, roughly 4 billion miles away. Sagan later wrote of the resulting photo: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… [on] a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”


I believe that we are biological. Period. I believe we evolved to what we are the same way everything else on the planet has. Genetic discoveries in the past half-dozen years have provided maps of the human genome telling us that the entire 6-billion-member human species goes back 7,000 generations to an original population of about 60,000.


That is roughly the number of, say, orangutans remaining in the world today, or the population of Bayonne, NJ. The DNA of any two humans is 99.9 percent identical. This means that people the world over are much more similar than they are different. Most of the differences are cultural.


I believe that we are biological, but I have trouble believing that is ALL we are. It seems wasteful. Everything we become in our lives, great poets, scientists, artists, thinkers, flickers out to nothing? The most ordinary human is a wealth of experience and even wisdom. Does that blink out? Is all of that mere data stored in three pounds of gray Jell-O under a dome of skull?


 My mind tells me yes.


My heart tells me no.


But my heart has always feared the dark. It cannot imagine non-being without quailing in terror, though it ponders its apparent non-being before birth without the least tremor…been there, done that. I find this mysterious. As though a man, used to poverty, finds a dime and then lives in terror of the day he will lose it.


I believe that life is a miracle, though not one necessarily conjured by the action of any outside force. It may be that life, however miraculous, is actually as common as beans out there in the scattered worlds of the vast cosmos.


Matter is energy, dozing, and all life as we understand it is a strange dance of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, potassium and sulfur. I believe that Nature wastes nothing. Matter and energy are really the same things uttered in a different idiom. Death and life, decay and growth, chemicals rising up to a fevered tango only to fall back to dust, all is energy jumping in and out of the shadows. It may mean nothing. It may mean everything.


I believe that our minds are products of our bodies, which are the products of chemical and physical properties. I believe that when I die I am dead, a match burned out. I also believe that I will always act and think as though “I” am separate from, though inextricably linked, to all this bumping, jiggling, wheezing gear in which I travel. I accept that my understanding of the universe consists of contradictions. I believe that this galaxy of contradictions is a basic human condition, a balance of opposition necessary to keep us from tipping over. A human that believes truly that they are nothing but a few decades of chemical fizz is a heartless biological automaton, possibly lacking any moral compass. A human that thinks he is the earthly utterance of God, a thing essentially spirit placed here to have dominion over all things, is a dangerous fool.


At the same time, the idea that life has no intrinsic truth or morality leaves me feeling hollow and afraid. Dammit, I want to believe that there is somebody out there in charge, that this is all for something. And I have a whole list of people whom I would like the Almighty to smite.


I believe that there is much we do not understand. I do not believe in ghosts and the ‘spirit’ world so popular these days. That is to say, I do not believe in the “supernatural,” simply because I believe that there is nothing that is outside of nature. I believe that much that has been reported as ghosts, UFOs, mental telepathy, and predictions uttered by your Aunt Hattie’s tea leaves, whatever else they may be, are events arising from a natural universe, and include large doses of gullibility and coincidence. When the mysteries behind so-called supernatural phenomena are explained, it will be science and reason that explain them, not some reedy whisper from beyond the pale.


I believe that God gave us minds so that we would eventually figure out that he doesn’t exist.


I believe Nature is improvident, and spends itself like a drunken sailor. Profligacy is the rule of thumb. Creatures at the bottom of the food chain rapid-fire their progeny willy-nilly into the world’s myriad appetites. We are here, the end product of millions of years of primate evolution. The fundamentalists say “not so.” Nature seems to say “so what?”


I believe that the growing movement among fundamentalists and “know-nothings” of every ilk may be the most terrible danger our civilization has faced. Attacks by terror and disease destroy our bodies. Shunning real, demonstrable science, rational thinking, and a sense of history, indeed, turning away knowledge for what is more comfortable, will destroy our souls more surely than could any host of fallen angels.

© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,
Gettysburg, Pa.

A guy thing

November 5, 2007

Unless you have led a monastic existence for the past 10 or 15 years or so, you probably have a computer and at least one email account.

If so, it is a given that you will receive a certain percentage of messages you did not ask for.

Many of those will offer you easy ways to increase the size of certain body parts, even if your own particular genetic coding failed to give you those parts in the first place. Think of it as a kind of back-handed democracy, a utopian realm where everybody, male or female, may be offered the opportunity to possess a penis the size of a Saturn V rocket, or boobs like grain silos.

You will also have received tens of thousands of bad jokes, some of which have been zipping around in cyberspace as long as there has been such a place, sort of like The Flying Dutchman ghost ship, doomed to sail the seas forevermore, for reasons I have forgotten.

Not long ago, I received a packaged of moldy old “It’s a guy thing” jokes. You know what I mean. Jokes about how guys do things that just don’t make sense, not only to women, but to some guys.

I always like to point out that I was raised in The South, where some of us like to suggest that in a lot of cases the last words a man ever utters are prefaced by the phrase “Hold my beer and watch THIS.”

It is mostly blue-collar folks, a group in which I claim proud membership, because life does not seem to have a lot of meaning if you can’t salute it with one’s middle finger from time to time. This is just basic human nature, especially among those who work for a living and who are hanging on by the skin of their teeth to what they’ve built. People who are poorer and live in ghettos and what not don’t need crazy stunts to thumb their noses at the fates. For those folks, just walking down the street is a crap shoot.

And the rich….you’re kidding me, right? To a rich person, living on the edge means sending the children of blue-collar people to fight for oil in far away countries and seeing how far up you can drive the price of crude oil. The excitement never stops.

OK, so I stopped my car to chat with a neighbor earlier today. We commented on how delightful the weather was. It was so nice, he said, that he went out into the woods with some buddies to cut firewood. It was a beautiful day, he said. Yes, but it was a shame to spoil it by having to cut wood, I opined.

No, he said, it was fine. We had beer. And chainsaws. And liquor and a skid loader to move the wood. It was damned near perfect, he said.

So, what was missing?

“Firearms. After awhile, I got to thinking that I wish I’d taken my pistol,” he lamented.

“Two chainsaws, the truck, beer and liquor….hell, I can’t think of EVERYTHING,” he said.

You may read reports that Americans don’t get as much leisure time as their European counterparts.

That might be true. But I’d be willing to wager that they don’t know how to have fun as INTENSELY as we do. No way.

Is this a great country, or what?


© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

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