Monthly Archives: May 2014

Bees

I’ve heard the bees are dying. Or, at least, disappearing. In an effect dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, whole colonies of healthy bees have abandoned their hives. Never to be heard from again.

Or maybe that was Roanoke.

Bee keepers have been raising concern about the disappearance of bees for over a decade. Research into this mystery was inconclusive until a few years ago, when studies began pointing to a class of pesticides.

So the bees aren’t secretly tiny aliens who’ve been returning to their far off tiny alien planet, we’ve actually been killing them. Whoops.

The pesticides, ingested by bees through pesticide-laced pollen, damage bee’s otherwise impressive homing ability.

So, the bees are dying.

It seems, though, like there have been an extra lot of bees this year. Or maybe I just think that every spring. I wondered if something, perhaps, had changed. If the bees were making a comeback. Go bees!

I didn’t learn the answer to that question, but I did find that apparently 2012 was a great year for bees, 2013 was a terrible year for bees, and that in early 2014, a Vermont beekeeper found Zombie Bees.

Oh my, who knew that was a thing?

Apparently, it’s a thing.

Fortunately (unfortunately?) zombie bees are not actually undead, but are erratic, disoriented, and about to die. Not from the same pesticides which are killing the bees, but, you know, from other things that are killing the bees.

Poor bees.

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The world is my oyster

I always thought that was a strange expression. The world is my oyster.

I imagine the saying as a truncated version of a longer thought. The world is my oyster, and I’m a tiny piece of dirt being digested into a pearl.

And, while, indeed, the saying as popularized is not complete, the original meaning is quite different from the one I inferred.

Why, then the world’s mine oyster,    
Which I with sword will open.

Pistol tells Falstaff in the Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff had just declined the noble Pistol a loan.

The world is my oyster may indeed mean that anything is possible. But that valuable pearl doesn’t come effortlessly. It takes strength, effort, violence perhaps, to pry open and retrieve.

The world is my oyster, Pistol is saying, and I will do whatever it takes to get the pearl.

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This is the greatest moment of your life

He burns his hand with water and lye. The worst pain you’ll ever feel.

He imagines himself somewhere else. Detached. Guided meditation. His hand is burning, his mind is gone. Lost amid rolling green hills. Breathe.

This is the greatest moment of your life, he says, and you’re sleeping through it.

This is Tyler Durden. This is the unnamed narrator. This is Fight Club. A book by Chuck Palahniuk long before it was a movie. An insomniac’s tale. A copy of a copy of a copy.

And yes, this post contains spoilers.

You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, Tyler says. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else.

Tyler Durden is tough. Tyler Durden lives by his own rules. Tyler Durden is everything the narrator wishes he could be.

Tyler Durden is not the hero of this story.

No one is a hero in this existentialist tale. The fractured ramblings of a psychotic man and his secondary personality. Everyone is broken and meaningless.

Tyler Durden starts a movement. The first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.

Palahniuk writes that Fight Club started as just a list of rules. The story came later. Just a list of rules.

Tyler Durden starts a movement. Tyler Durden breaks men out of their sorry, simple lives. Working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy shit they don’t really need. Tyler Durden sets them free.

The first rule of Project Mayhem is you don’t ask questions about Project Mayhem. The fifth rule of Project Mayhem is you have to trust Tyler Durden.

Don’t talk about. Don’t ask questions. Trust Tyler Durden.

You do the little job you’re trained to do.
Pull a lever.
Push a button.
You don’t understand any of it, and then you just die.

There’s no freedom there. The recruits of Project Mayhem are just as lost as ever.

But if Tyler’s no hero, why does his character hold such allure? Why are Durden quotes part of popular culture? How can he be so right and yet so wrong?

In the afterword, Palahniuk writes there is nothing a blue-collar nobody in Oregon with a public school education can imagine that a million-billion people haven’t already done.

Nothing is new in Fight Club. Waiters have always tainted food. Projectionists have always altered projections. People have always fought to blow off steam. Palahniuk got these stories from his friends. Blue-collar nobodys in Oregon.

We’re all Tyler Durden. Well, maybe not all of us, but you know what I mean. We’re all the narrator, and we’re all Tyler. Broken and scared and strong and tough.

We look away when we’re in pain. We try to protect ourselves from the trauma. But life only lasts so long, and perhaps, as Tyler says, we should embrace every moment of it.

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time.

No matter the pain.

This is the greatest moment of your life.

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Calluses

I’ve got calluses on my hands.

I thumb them mindlessly
On the street
In meetings
Feeling every ridge
Every crack of skin

Some days bright red
Rubbed raw
Some days dull and hard
A thick coat of impenetrable skin
Exhausted, they rip off.
Healing and loss.

I’ve got calluses on my hands.

Gripping so tightly
Knuckles white
Muscles tensed
The corrugated metal
Of a straight bar or hex bar
Of a dumbbell or kettlebell

A scream and it’s aloft.
Muscles burning,
Heart racing,
Hands stinging.

I’ve got calluses on my hands.

My father had calluses.
His hands gnarled and bruised.
Nails, hammers, saws, and wood.
They all left their mark.
So much depends upon…
Calluses on his hands.
The heavy tax of time.

I pay for my calluses
Though he was paid for his.
I wear them with pride.
Battle scars of
Wars I chose to fight.
Deeper scars remain.

Unseemly, perhaps,
But seemly all the same.
Battered but not broken
Broken but not beaten
Beaten but not defeated
Defeated but not destroyed.

I’ve got calluses on my hands.

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Telling history

On May 10, 1869, the Golden Spike, ceremonially driven at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, signaled the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

The 1,907-mile contiguous railroad line had been under construction for six years. Irish immigrants working west from Iowa and Chinese immigrants working east from California. They were joined by civil war veterans, Mormons, and others seeking to earn a living in the new frontier.

History doesn’t properly record how many people built the transcontinental railroad, nor how many people died in the effort.

But on that day 145 years ago, all that mattered was that east and west had finally come together. With a few dignitaries on hand, the dirty, scraggly laborers who had sweated over those tracks came together in celebration, as captured in this photograph taken by A.J. Russell:

Transcontental_original

Of course, the liquor bottles adorning the center of the image were tastefully removed from some later prints in deference to the temperance movement.

And perhaps feeling that the photograph did not appropriately convey the true greatness of America’s manifest destiny, painter Thomas Hill illustrated this same moment in his The Last Spike (1881).

Notice anything different?

The_Last_Spike_1869

A real scholar of these things could point out all specific dignitaries who were absent from the actual event but somehow made it into the painting.

Technically, there are workers, officials, and people of different backgrounds in both images, yet the feeling of each image is vastly different. The photo is raw, the painting is clean.

I used to pass both these images, side by side in Sacramento’s California State Railroad Museum. By father would stop and point them out. This is how history is made, he’d say. And this is how history is told.

No further commentary needed.

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Midnight brilliance

At three o’clock this morning I thought of something really thoughtful to blog about today. It was right on point, something deeply meaningful and insightful. I was really excited to write about it and explore the idea further.

I have no recollection what that idea was.

This happened to me a couple of days ago, too. I woke under darkness of night with a flash of inspiration. I’d come to some breakthrough that seemed to particularly transform my thinking, as if I’d finally found enlightenment beneath my Bodhi tree.

I repeated a phrase to myself, over and over, confident that it would stick with me in the morning light, that the meaning wouldn’t melt away with the dew.

But I can’t quite find it any more. It was something about change. Something like, don’t seek to change the way things are, but the way they should be. I don’t know. Those words seem hollow now. Like the discarded carapace of a creature which has since moved on. The understanding is gone.

This may seem tragic, like a work of art destroyed by fire. Or perhaps just frustrating, that moment when a name is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite get there.

But there is something beautiful in these fleeting thoughts as well. Like a sand mandala, painstakingly assembled then breathlessly destroyed. All flowers must fade.

In the wee hours of the morning, these ideas pop with urgency and vibrance. Then they fade into the ether, gone but not destroyed.

That moment is part of me now. It joins a billion other moments – raw, honest, nondescript moments – which burst into life then flickered into the past. Gone but not destroyed.

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O, these men, these men!

In the fourth act of Othello, as Desdemona desperately seeks to understand why her world is unraveling, the ill-fated heroine utters this simple lament: O, these men, these men!

This from the woman who later, even on her deathbed, refuses the betray the husband who murdered her.

This is Desdemona at her most vexed.

O, these men, these men!

I like to take the phrase more generally. To move it apart from the specific gender, race, and historical roles under which it was penned and imagine it as a universal lament on behalf of humanity.

O, these men, these men!

These men who’ve built pyramids and landfills. Who’ve shot rockets to the moon and missiles at their brethren.

These men who have created works of beauty worthy of tears, and who have destroyed beauty in acts worthy of tears.

These men who have discovered deep secrets of existence, and who have burned books and kept knowledge silent.

These men who have perpetuated genocides, and given their lives trying to prevent them.

These frail, flawed gods. Seemingly all powerful in their capacity to create, imagine, shape, and change, yet myopically unable to do so with strategy, care, and true understanding.

This is the simple lament of love and loathing, of excitement and anxiety, of wonder at all we can do mixed with dread at all we can do.

We can create and destroy. We can shape tomorrow. We can define our world. There is so much power at our collective fingertips. Should we consider ourselves blessed or cursed?

O, these men, these men!

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Labor and work

There are many different types of work. Colloquially, we often refer to these as blue collar white collar, or perhaps invoke terms like skilled labor or manual labor.

But there are subtler differences, even within the broad categories above.

At the moment, I’m thinking of this in terms of the subtle distinction between labor and work.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines work as: Something that is or was done; what a person does or did; an act, deed, proceeding, business. Labor, on the other hand, is An instance of physical or mental exertion; a piece of work that has been or is to be performed; a task.

The two words are definitely connected, yet importantly different. Work is a general term for accomplishing something, whereas labor seems more specific. Labor might be menial or it might be especially difficult – an exertion. Or it might be both.

Labor is where I find myself at home.

In the white collar world I seem to have found myself in, I imagine labor as that state where you can work hard at all hours of the morning or night. Where you can caffeinate yourself to the point of being a somnambulant zombie – capable of executing tasks successfully while in a state of virtual unconsciousness.

It is adding value by working hard. It is checking things off the list and moving things forward. It is working past your physical and mental capacity and yet still getting still getting it done.

A teacher of mine use to quip never let thinking get in the way of thought.

And I’ve started to feel this way about what I’ve come to think of as labor. You can get a lot done in such a state, but, being somewhat absent from the actual happenings, there’s something valuable missing there as well.

It seems our national norms are leaning towards labor. Towards burning the candle at both ends and pushing yourself to just below – or possibly past – the point of burnout.

But going this route devalues the importance of work. It implies that all you really need is a pulse and, perhaps, an opposable thumb.

Labor is good, and labor is necessary, but work is more a vocation – requiring hands and brains, manual effort and thought. It requires being present. It is an experience. It is an art.

It’s still work, no doubt. Not always pleasant and not always fun. But valuable and meaningful nonetheless.

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Who goes on a syllabus?

In a training several months ago, I was asked to determine whether the following scenario was a microaggression: a non-white student asks his white history professor why all the authors on the syllabus are white.

Unfortunately, before our fictional faculty member can respond, some other (white) student takes the opportunity to open his mouth and say something stupid – a comment which, yes, I did interpret to be a microaggression. Or possibly just an aggression.

But that little incident aside, what I really wanted to know was how the faculty member would respond. Of course, he (yes, it was all men in this scenario) could have said something equally ridiculous, making it easy for me to check my little microaggression box and move on with my day.

But since this is my scenario now, let’s imagine the professor said something more interesting and perhaps even reasonable:

“History,” as it’s collectively understood, is the story of white men. “His( s)tory” as one of my elementary school teachers annually exclaimed when explaining the need for women’s history month.

Of course, women and minorities have played critical roles in shaping the standardized version of history, and they do, of course, have rich histories in their own right. It is unfortunate that society has regulated these stories to second-tier status or worse, but the reality is that a scholar of history must study “history” as it’s collectively understood – biased though it may be toward the narratives of white, straight, property-owning men.

Of course, a true scholar of history should also study the stories of those who’ve been pushed to the margins of our awareness, but as a general baseline – any historian should be able to articulate the (white, male) history that exists as part of our shared culture.

So, taking that as the professor’s response, let’s also do away with the question of microaggressions and ask more generally – is there a problem with that syllabus? If it were your history course, would your syllabus look different?

There’s something unsatisfactory – and insufficient – in playing this as a numbers game. As if designating one whole month for “black history,” “women’s history,” or “Asian Pacific American Heritage,” is sufficient to balance the scales.

In a world of so many diverse voices, where so many people have been silenced, there’s no formula for creating a perfectly inclusive syllabus.

Not to mention that simply having a token voice as a nod to diversity doesn’t seem a particularly successful strategy, either.

And yet, there’s something challenging in diversifying a syllabus through content choices as well.

Consider this recent piece from the Atlantic, which seeks to dispute good ol’ Charles Murray’s claim that “no woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions,” because, he says, women are not good at abstract thought.

Okay, so, that sounds like something worth arguing over. Yet, in a somewhat disappointing show, the article seems to use “female” and “feminist” interchangeably – essentially, from my read, arguing that women add value by thinking explicitly about the role of women.

Of course, thinking about the role of women is important, but I dare say that women have more to say about the world then their own place within it.Questions of what – or who – go on a syllabus are important ones, but these questions are also a symptom of our greater social challenges.I’m not sure what to tell our wayward history professor. Ideally, we’d learn about history from the people themselves. From the first person accounts of the Chinese and Irish immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad, from the African American slaves who picked our cotton and worked our fields. From the individual stories of all types of people from all types of backgrounds.But such an integrated history doesn’t exist. We’re not even used to thinking in such an integrated way. If we were, we wouldn’t need to inject the “black perspective” or the “female perspective.” Those perspectives would just be there naturally. Part of the diverse fabric that makes up our true, rich history.

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What’s your damage?

I think we should bring back the expression what’s your damage? Although, really, did it ever go out of style?

Originally uttered in the 1988 classic Heathers, the question is more than your typical parabolic preppy-ism.

I’ve heard a few people use this expression recently. Real-life people, to be clear.

While urban dictionary considers the phrase akin to “what’s your problem?” I have to say, I prefer its 80s counterpart.

What’s your problem? puts the burden on the person with the so-called problem. Whatever the problem is, it is their problem and therefore on them to deal with it – though the rest of us may suffer as a result.

What’s your damage? seems somehow…more forgiving. Yes, there is a problem, but that problem isn’t mine to own or mine alone to solve. It’s a collective problem which I find particularly troubling because my damage has taught me to be troubled by it.

People tend to think in certain ways as a result of their experience. Our experience is the lens through which we interpret all we know.

What’s your damage? is like a jocular request for a sincere point of view, with a dark nod to the belief that we are all damaged in our own ways. And that damage shapes who we are.

So, really, now, what is your damage?

 

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