Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Conversations with Bean: Sorting the Bitches

We've had our greyhound, Bean, for a year now. Every day he grows in wisdom and grace. He is a good dog, eager to please and eager to learn. We have begun to engage one another in conversation with some frequency. He seems to enjoy our little talks, and I find, as his powers of observation grow, so do I. Here is one such exchange.
BEAN: Have you ever tried to sort out the neighbor's bitches?
ME: We call them women.
BEAN: I know you do, usually, but I think your neighbor's women are probably bitches.
ME: What makes you say that?
BEAN: Well, for one thing, he calls them bitches when he is talking to the friends that he calls dogs. You know the ones I mean. They drive cars with big shiny rims that I like to pee on when no one is looking. None of these dog friends ever talk about women...only bitches. They stand around smoking the cigarettes, looking at their cars, and talking about bitches. Then they throw their cigarettes on the ground, and drive away in a pack. I like these guys. I think they all would like to be dogs. I think that shows good taste even though they all have to use their forepaws to hold up their pants.
ME: You may have a point.
BEAN: Anyway, have you been able to sort them out, the bitches I mean. Because I don't understand them. They confuse me.
ME: Well women can be like th­at sometimes. Aren't you glad you live over here where it's easier to figure out.
BEAN: I do like it over here. Everybody over here knows their place. It's me, then you, then Sandy, then Mommy. Mommy's not so good when you're not here. Sometimes she forgets her place, but since you're here almost all the time, it hasn't been much of a problem.
ME: One of the benefits of me not having a job I suppose.
BEAN: What is job?
ME: A job is where you go someplace else and do stuff that somebody else tells you to do.
BEAN: Why would you do that?
ME: Well every couple of weeks they give you treats for doing it.
BEAN: Is it the good treats? The chewy ones that taste like the stuff the cats leave in the sand box?
ME: No, not really. I guess you would say that the job treats are not that good.
BEAN: I don't think I would like this job then. We should talk more about this later. Right now I want to finish sorting out the bitches.
ME: Okay. Tell me what it is that confuses you, and I will try to help you sort it out.
BEAN: Well the neighbor has the two bitches, just like you, only they both walk around on their hind legs like Mommy instead of on all four legs like Sandy, so it's harder to figure out who is alpha. It would be good to see them together. If I could see how they interact when they are together, I would know how they rank in the pack. They are never together though. Sometimes the skinny one with the face like a doberman with worms is there, and sometimes the bouncy one with the pictures on her legs is there, but they are never there at the same time. I can't figure out how they arrange to never be there at the same time. It is a mystery.
ME: Well, Bean, I have to say that I have noticed the same thing.
BEAN: It is almost like magic. The skinny one will be there for three or four weeks, and then one day she will get in the round car and drive away, and then five minutes later the bouncy bitch will come up the driveway in her square car and she will stay for a week. Then, as soon as the bouncy one leaves the other bitch comes back. They don't miss each other by much, but they always miss. I think that maybe these bitches cannot get along with each other like Mommy and Sandy, so the neighbor has to keep them apart. I don't know how he does it though.
ME: I'm not sure how he does it either, my friend, but I think maybe it has something to do with his cell phone.
BEAN: What is cell phone?
ME: A cell phone is that little box that he holds up to his ear when he is standing in his driveway and it seems as though he is talking to himself. He is actually talking into the cell phone, and someone someplace else can hear what he is saying and can talk back to him.
BEAN: I have seen him do that often. It is a relief to know that he is not talking to himself. I was beginning to worry about him. I thought that maybe not knowing when his bitches were coming and going was making him a little mad.
ME: I can see where you might think that.
BEAN: That still doesn't sort out his bitches though. Why do you think they behave in this strange manner?
ME: Well here is what I think, but I am only guessing. I would ask him, but in addition to the cell phone and the car with the big rims he also has some guns, so I don't want to sniff around in his business until he lets me know that it is okay, if you know what I mean. I think the bitch that looks like a doberman with worms is the wife bitch, and the one that bounces is the girlfriend bitch, and that the neighbor uses his cell phone to manage his bitch's comings and goings because if they are in the same place together they will tear each other to bits.
BEAN: Why doesn't he just tell them to behave?
ME: Well the thing about wives and girlfriends is that they do not really behave like proper bitches, at least not when they are aware of one another. Wife and girlfriend bitches are more like cats. They are very difficult to manage.
BEAN: If not impossible. Thank you. That really clears things up.
ME: You are welcome.
BEAN: Do you think that I could have one of these cell phones? I would like to be able to manage Mommy better when you are gone. It seems like a cell phone could be very useful in this regard since the neighbor is able to use his to make what seems like magic.
ME: Well first I think you need to understand that having a cell phone is a lot like chasing your tail. It seems like a good idea until you catch it. When you have a cell phone you can tell people what to do, sure, but you also have to listen to them when they talk to you.
BEAN: Do you mean that Mommy would be talking into the cell phone from someplace else, and I would have to listen to her?
ME: Exactly.
BEAN: Well...never mind then.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Letters to Nineveh

Today's post is over at Letters to Nineveh. I put it there because it seems to fit the more or less prophetical nature of that blog. On the other hand, I also meant Letters to Nineveh to be the repository of my more hilarious and irreverent musings, and today's entry is neither. Still I think it's worth a read and a comment or two. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wisdom's Going to Be the Death of Me

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest." Confucius

I would add a fourth—nearly getting killed, which is scariest—although you could argue that this is just a part of bitter experience.
I emerged from all my nearly-getting-killed experiences relatively unscathed. What I learned is that the difference between living and dying is sometimes measured in inches or seconds or amperes, and while a near miss may be good as a mile, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try at least to draw a lesson from it.
Periodically I review the ways I have been nearly killed in order to refresh my sense of good fortune at having survived this long on the planet. So far, I have:
  • tangled and lost with an electric arc welder
  • dived headfirst into a shallow pool, cracking my head on the bottom in the process
  • passed on a ride in an airplane that crashed
  • pulled out onto a highway in front of a speeding car
  • skidded across an icy interstate between two tractor-trailer rigs going the opposite direction
  • spun out in heavy traffic on a wet interstate highway
  • been held up at gunpoint
  • toppled over a low iron railing from a concrete stairway onto an asphalt drive
I could probably add being diagnosed with cancer, which certainly gives pause for reflection, but it doesn't quite fit with the potential for instantaneous finality that characterizes the rest of the list. With cancer you get to think about your imminent demise before it overtakes you.
So what lessons have I learned from all these there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-went-I events? Not much it would seem. I'm more cautious than I used to be, but who isn't?
I used to want to sail around the world single-handed. I idolized guys like Joshua Slocum and Francis Chichester. Now I'm afraid to go out of sight of land.
I used to want to ride a motorcycle across the U.S. Now I'm afraid to get on one for fear I won't be able to keep it upright at a standstill.
I used to want to race sports cars. Now I drive slower than anyone I know. Friends and family make fun of how slowly I drive. People stuck behind me in traffic who don't know who I am want to kill me. That's the only thing that keeps me moving along at all. I'm almost as afraid of being shot by a road enraged motorist as I am of being sucked under a truckload of cattle bound for the slaughterhouse.
Another thing I used to think is that I was somehow being saved from all these near deaths for a higher purpose. That there was something important I was supposed to do, and I wasn't going to shuffle off the mortal coil until I had done it. I'm still trying to figure out what it might be. I've cataloged my singular talents, hoping the things that I am good at would give me a clue as to my purpose on earth.
The one thing that I do better than anyone else I know, better than you, and better than anyone you know, is to fart. I've always been pretty good at it, but since I lost 14 inches of south-bound pipe to colorectal surgery my skills are world class. I'm not talking just volume and duration either. I have tonality and pitch control that would make an opera tenor proud. If I went onto America's Got Talent, I would blow the competition away. (pun intended because, you know, who could resist?) As a bonus, my farts do not stink, although my wife maintains that the only reason I think this is that I have burned out my olfactory nerves with Afrin and Mucinex.
Even I know, however, that this is not the kind of talent for which one can reasonably expect to be preserved because it is so unlikely to ever be the fundamental impetus of some august achievement. If anything, trying to capitalize on a penchant for flatulence should be cause for being struck down early. Alas the fates and the rules of natural selection do not work that way. A spectacular paucity of anything meaningful to contribute to society is not, apparently, reason enough to be excised from the fabric of modern culture. Else why would Pauly Shore and Perez Hilton still be with us.


A part of me harbors the idea that, so long as I fail to realize my appointed purpose, I will be safe from the grim reaper. I know this is probably ridiculous, but the notion panders to the same part of me that thinks it wants to live forever.
“How do you want to die,” someone asks.
“Last,” I say.
“Last among whom?”
“Just last...or not at all.”
Many are happy to point out the error.
“No one lives forever.”
“So far,” I reply.
Lately though this too is a thing I used to think that no longer holds the same fascination for me. I am so riddled with pains and diminished capacities in my sixties that I can scarcely imagine going happily into my nineties. I figure by the time I get to eighty, the only thing holding me upright is going to be the gas.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Building the Ziggurat of Babel

Tower Concept - Noida, India

At first blush building the tower of Babel must have seemed like a noble undertaking. According to the account in Genesis, the people of Babel, 'of one language and few words', decided to build a tower and city, 'whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth'.
It's interesting to me that, at least as portrayed in the language of King James, these people knew what was about to happen, but did not realize that what they were about to do would be the cause of it. Instead they thought the tower and the city would cement them in both history and geography. Not the first time that men have misread the portents of their ambitions, nor the last.
In other accounts—and there are more than a few—the purpose of the tower was so that the builders might be able to commune directly with God. Apparently they had a clearer idea than we do today of where exactly God lived and how to reach him. What they didn't understand was how little, even then, God wanted to have to do with an over-reaching humankind.
By nearly all accounts, the Tower was huge. Not the replica built by Nebuchednazer in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. That little exercise in borrowing thunder from the past measured only 300 feet in height. The real deal, the first Tower of Babel, the one frequently attributed to Nimrod, was 5,433 cubits plus 2 palms tall 13 stades wide and 30 stades long according to the Book of Jubilees.
Translating these measurements into units we are more familiar with today: 9,508.25 feet in height, 7,800 feet in width, and 18,000 feet in length. By comparison, the current tallest structure in the world, the puny Burj Khalifa in Dubai, stands only 2,716.5 feet high, less than a third of Babel's awesome height and the merest sliver of its width and breadth.
A more modest estimate for the Tower in the Third Apocalypse of Baruch puts it at 463 cubits or 810 feet. This would have made it the tallest structure in the world up until the Eiffel tower was completed in 1889. Interestingly, the estimate in the Book of Jubilees is not the most ambitious, for 14th century traveler John Mandeville reported that local residents claimed the Tower had been 8 miles in height. This would make it some 13,000 feet taller than Mount Everest. The Sherpa has not been born that could carry a white mountaineer and all his gear this high. Presumably, when your aim is to talk directly to God, oxygen is not that big an issue.
In the end all the effort came to naught. Again according to the account in Genesis: 'And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.'
Now I don't presume to know why God objected to the tower. It may be that it was so large that He thought it would throw the earth out of orbit and undo a lot of His handiwork. He already had a lot invested in the dodo bird, the passenger pigeon, the North African elephant, and the Bali tiger, not the least of which was getting them paired up and safely stowed on Noah's Arc. Surely he didn't want them to become extinct because of some misguided land development scheme authored by the movers and shakers of the day.
It may be that he didn't want a bunch of social climbers showing up unannounced and uninvited for dinner. Or it may be, as the narrative seems to suggest, that He didn't want them to succeed to the point where they thought they could undertake other even more ambitious projects. Whatever the reason for His objection, the solution was simple enough—confound their speech so they couldn't understand one another. The people were scattered. The project was abandoned. The problem persists to this day.

Another word for a stepped tower is ziggurat. Ziggurats were common in ancient Mesopotamia. The Ziggurat of Babel is a good name for the infamous tower, especially for those of us whose speech has been confounded by a watchful God. If you drop 'ziggurat' into casual conversations, no one will know what the hell you are talking about. Just, it would seem, as God intended.
I think the InterWeb is a good modern digital analog of the Ziggurat of Babel. For one thing, it is huge. I don't think anyone knows exactly how big it is. It grows every day. If you took all the hardware that it takes to run the InterWeb—servers, cables, disk drives, storage devices, PCs, tablets and mobile devices from all over the world—and piled them up all in one place, that stack would probably reach near to heaven. I don't think that if we climbed up that stack though, we would be able to talk to God.
I do think that some people believed, as the InterWeb developed and grew, that it would make us like God in many ways. The instant and universal availability of knowledge and ideas would foster sharing and collaborations such that 'now nothing will be restrained from [us], which [we] have imagined to do'.
There is certainly a lot of promise in the InterWeb, and, at first blush, it would seem a noble enterprise. What no one seems to have reckoned with, however, is the instant and universal availability of bad information—the modern digital analog of confounded speech. Hardly anyone knows what the hell they are talking about anymore, and every day it gets harder and harder to winnow the chaff.
This is why it is possible for some yahoo to assert with certainty that 4 million innocent Iraqis died at the hands of U.S. Troops as a direct result of the evil machinations of President George W. Bush. The same yahoo believes that the Pope, Jesus, and the Tea Party were somehow complicit in this, and there is nothing about the InterWeb to prevent him tweeting this drivel out into the ether where it can be read by more yahoos who will believe it for no better reason than that they want to. Snopes, no matter how well intended, cannot keep up with the sheer volume of dreck.
Morons are writing our history. They are baking it into mud bricks and cementing it together with pitch slime. We will be well and truly confounded and likely scattered amongst the stars, the Earth no longer being sufficient to contain our ambitions.