My Private Political Journals, Vol. 3

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The other night I was watching the first episode of David Letterman’s new show on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. He was interviewing Barack Obama.

I know better than to take away any serious political points from entertainment shows. But I had to admit I missed President Obama. His gleaming white teeth and laser sharp annunciation. Gone are the days!

Don’t ask me about policy. If I had to think of one policy-relevant item that comes to mind circa the Obama presidency, the only thing that comes to mind is ObamaCare. And my opinions on ObamaCare are not interesting.

What was interesting was how the image of a president evoked a kind of nostalgia. Obama’s first term began the same year I started my freshman year of college. His second term coincided with my graduation, the beginning of my adulthood. These parallels are impossible to divorce from my perception of his presidency. And such is the era we live in: The Image of the president giving pressers & pseudo-events is ubiquitous, difficult to hide from unless you live out in the woods.

So I was sitting on my couch being re-cast under Obama’s spell when a small dollop of doubt clouded up my reverie. I thought of a podcast I’d listened to with the journalist Matt Taibbi, author of Insane Clown President (take a guess who that book is about). On the podcast Taibbi talked about his time covering the Obama White House and what troubled him about it. He said you wouldn’t believe how buddy-buddy the journalists all were with Obama. Apparently one tradition on Air Force 1 was for every journalist to take a selfie with Obama, all of which were taped to the inside walls of the plane, pictures of gleaming young Ivy-League grads fawning over this figure they ostensibly had been hired to criticize. For the public good! So much for objectivity. It wasn’t a good look, Taibbi said.

So I thought to myself. If I was a journalist WH Correspondent, would I have taken a selfie with Obama, would I fanboy?

Of course.

All throughout the interview, to the great amusement of Obama, Letterman made jokes about how Obama was still the President. It was only some grand collective delusion or conspiracy that someone else was now president, apparently some crazed lunatic. Neither ever mentioned Trump’s name in the same way at Hogwart’s they don’t say Voldemort’s name. It was all allusions to some misty menacing force in the air. Veiled in jokes, of course.

As they skirted around Trump and I remembered the story of Obama’s Air Force 1, I began to consider Trump and the media’s relationship to his presidency.

Obviously very different.

All out warfare from Day 1.

When I woke up the day after Trump won, I was just as surprised as anybody. I’ve always found Trump’s character to be in poor taste, odious at times. During the primary season I thought there was no way he had even an iota of a chance.

Well, shows how much I know about politics.

The media’s adversarial relationship with Trump is almost universally cast as a bad thing. From the left, because Trump is so bad, they are always having to find new evil things he is up to, and what fractured times we are in with so many deplorables! From the right, because they see the media’s coverage as an overreaction, and a clear sign of bias against conservatives, etc. You’ve heard it all before.

On the couch, true, I’m about two beers in, or maybe it’s because I’m crazy, but I actually don’t mind the press and its foaming-at-the-mouth approach to Trump. Some might call it biased or sensationalistic. But I think a good press should be aggressive with the political powers that they are covering. Not for clicks and views. But for the sake of achieving scrutiny and transparency on behalf of the American people.

Oh say can you seeeeeeeee

The real shame, I think, is not the media and their coverage of Trump. Or our so-called time of division or polarization, which has been a consistent news item since the 1960s. It’s that the media took basically an eight year long lunch break under Obama. True, the man is smooth and nice and polished and has politics that everyone in the media can get on board with, and he was our first black president, etc. But if we cannot be self-critical, in politics or any other sphere of human endeavors, what gives us the right, besides power, to be critical of others? Reporters say all the time that Obama’s was a ‘scandal-free’ presidency. Maybe so. But how would we know otherwise?

By the dawn’s early light

If we are using truth as our measuring stick, it is only by the amount of effort we have put into pressure-testing our own ideas and beliefs, with counter-points and counter-counter-points, that we can in good faith criticize the ideas of others.

But if power is the measuring stick, anything goes. Truths, half-truths, lies. It does not matter. Whatever can be made into a weapon.

Pick your poison, I say. But you cannot have both.

Dave ends the interview by saying Obama is the first president he’s ever truly respected. Obama thanks Dave. They shake hands. The two men stand. The audience applauds. They walk offstage. And then backstage they awkwardly fumble with the camera crew about which direction they should walk for the final shot. It’s a bare blank hallway in both directions.

“We should redo this,” Obama jokes. “They want a shot of us walking off into the sunset, together.”

“How do you know this and I don’t?” Dave jokes back.

“We’re gonna go this way,” Obama says. This time they walk away from the cameras, Obama’s arm around Letterman. “Now they will be able to create a poignant moment.”

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How Reading George Saunders Can Make You a Better Writer

 

The problem with George Saunders is that he makes writing fiction look easy. After reading, you might be tempted, because of how intuitive his stories are, to think, I can do that! Well, sorry to be the one to to tell you this, but… you can’t. I don’t care where you went to school or got your MFA. You really can’t write a George Saunders story. It looks easy. But that’s a trick. It’s not easy.

Probably the only way to prove this to you is to look at a specific story and try and unpack it’s glorious difficulty.

But which one?

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a good example of a seemingly simple story with a complex underbelly. Published in his most recent collection, The Tenth of December, it contains many classic Saundersian elements which we will analyze in due course.

Pull up your chairs boys and girls.

The story begins one evening in a medieval theme park—

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.

All of the sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

Then hightailed it out to Parking, eyes black underneath from crying.

Cooking had laid out a big spread on a crude table over by CastleTowerIV: authentic pig heads and whole chickens and blood pudding.

Don Murray stood there moodily picking at some coleslaw. And gave me the friendliest head shake he’d ever given me. Women, he said.

Fake river. Pile of armor. Scullery. Peasant skirt. CastleTowerIV. Authentic pig heads—

Images and settings meant to evoke a kind of theme park of the mind. This is a mode so associated with Saunders it’s easy to forget most of his stories don’t take place in a dystopian theme park. But when they do, almost always, the technology & setting of the parks is of the future—i.e. science fiction—while their theme evokes the past. Take for example one of Saunders’ first ever published stories “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which is the name of a theme park set in the near future, with elements of tech that seem familiar and yet slightly further advanced than our time, that is both literally and figuratively haunted by ghosts of the Civil War. Another example is “Pastoralia,” which goes back even further to the time of the Caveman.

One way to read this tendency in Saunders is to say that he’s predicting theme parks will continue play a part in modern life. Another is that the theme park is meant to be a symbol for escapism or consumer entertainment, and their exaggeration is meant to be a critique of our own culture. But, to me, this common thread that runs through CivilWarLand, Pastoralia, and especially through My Chivalric Fiasco is a clue to look even deeper. The juxtaposition of future and past in the parks, I think, isn’t coincidental; it’s the deep third layer which allows Saunders’ stories to have emotional teeth, a layer that will become more important as we move into the 2nd and 3rd acts.

See me, said a note on my locker next morning.

In Don Murray’s office was Martha.

So Ted, Don Murray said. Last night you witnessed something that, if not viewed in the right light, might seem wrongish. Martha and I find that funny. Don’t we, Mar? I just now gave Martha a thousand dollars. In case there was some kind of misunderstanding. Martha now feels we had a fling. Which, both being married, we so much regret. What with the drinking, plus the romance of TorchLightNight, what happened, Martha?

Martha: We got carried away. Had a fling.

Don: Voluntary fling.

Martha: Voluntary fling.

Don: And not only that, Ted. Martha here is moving up. From Scullery. To Floater Thespian. But let’s underscore: you are not moving up, Martha, because of our voluntary fling. It’s coincidental. Why are you moving up?

Martha: Coincidental.

Don: Coincidental, plus always had a killer worth ethic. Ted, you’re also moving up. Out of Janitorial. To Pacing Guard.

Which was amazing. I’d been in Janitorial six years. A man of my caliber. That was a joke MQ and I sometimes shared.

Erin would call down and go: MQ, someone threw up in the Grove of Sorrow.

And MQ would be like: A man of my caliber?

Or Erin would go: Ted, some lady dropped her necklace down in the pigpen and is pitching a shit fit.

And I would go: A man of my caliber?

Erin would be like: Get going. It’s not funny. She’s right up in my grill.

Our pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake but still it was no fun to have to don waders and drag the SifterBoyDeLux into the pigpen to, for example, find that lady’s necklace. For best results with the SifterBoyDeLux, you had to first lug the fake pigs off to one side. Being on auto the pigs would continue grunting as you lugged them. Which might look funny if you happened to be holding that particular pig wrong.

Some random guy might go: Look, dude’s breast-feeding that pig.

And everyone might laugh.

Therefore a promotion to Pacing Guard was very much welcomed by me.

I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing. All winter Beth would go around shyly vacuuming up snow. If you came in while she was vacuuming, she would prove too shy to continue.

That night at home Dad calculated we would soon buy Mom a tilting bed.

Dad: If you keep moving up the ladder, maybe in time we can get me a back brace.

Me: Absolutely. I am going to make that happen.

After dinner, driving into town to fill Mom’s prescription for pain and Beth’s prescription for shyness and Dad’s prescription for pain, I passed Martha and Nate’s.

I honked, did a lean-and-wave, pulled over, got out.

Hey Ted, said Nate.

What’s up? I said.

Well, our place sucks, Nate said. Look at this place. Sucks, right? I just can’t seem to keep my energy up.

True, their place was pretty bad. The roof was patched with blue sheeting, their kids were doing timid leaps off a wheelbarrow into a mud puddle, a skinny pony was under the swing set licking itself raw like it wanted to be clean when it finally made its break for a nicer living situation.

I mean where are the grown-ups around here? Nate said.

Then he picked a Snotz wrapper off the ground and looked for somewhere to put it. Then dropped it again and it landed on his shoe.

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don’t you go south on me too, Nate said. You’re all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I’m shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get-up-and-go for that. Although you never know.

So what’s going on at your guys’ work? Nate said. This one here’s been super-moody. Even though she just got herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I’m in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

So said something about, well, promotions can be hard, they cause a lot of stress.

The gratitude was just beaming off Martha. She walked me back to the car, gave me three tomatoes they’d grown, which, tell the truth, looked kind of geriatric: tiny, timid, wrinkled.

Thank you, she whispered. You saved my life.

The situation of both characters, Ted and Martha, is becoming more explicit. This is a textbook lesson in how to write the middle section of a story. Raise the stakes. We know explicitly what each character has to lose.

The victimization of Martha is drawn out with great detail and nuance. It seems so simple, but think of Martha’s position. Low on the totem pole. “Peasant skirt.” Taken advantage of in just the way certain medieval female peasants were by members of the male aristocracy. But the modern touch feels as relevant as you could possibly get. #MeToo? Anyone? Don can’t simply crush the peasantry underneath him into submission. Like a good modern day oppressor, he’s bound by the conceit of offering hush money.

Aha! So we see the action of the story is highly modern while the thematic undertones connect with the past. With the characters’ relative positions in the park, and what they represent as characters, it’s as if Saunders is saying: Things have always been this way. The aristocracy lord their power over the peasantry. The only difference in our time is things have been slightly nerfed. Rather than being raped and then, as a result, stoned to death or beheaded, Martha is raped and allowed to live, bearing the indignity of her position with a few extra bucks every month and a pat on the head.

And Ted is dutifully keeping quiet.

For now.

Next morning in my locker were my Pacing Guard uniform and a Dixie cup with a yellow pill in it.

Hooray, I thought, finally a Medicated Role.

In came Mrs. Bridges from Health & Safety, with an MSDS on the pill.

Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred million grams of KnightLyfe®. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe® is, you’re going to want to stay hydrated.

I took the pill, went to the Throne Room. I was supposed to Pace in front of a door behind which a King was supposedly thinking. There really was a King in there: Ed Philips. They put a King in there because one of our Scripted Tropes was: Messenger arrives, charges past Pacing Guard a lack-wit, Messenger winces, closes door, has brief exchange with Pacing Guard.

Soon Guests had nearly filled our Fun Spot. The Messenger (a.k.a Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which as: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighed down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Just then the KnightLyfe® kicked in. My mouth went dry. I felt it was nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us life. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge. 

Kyle departed anon. I did happily entertain our Guests, through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.

Soon, the Pleasantness of that Day, already Considerable, was much improved by the Arrival of my Benefactor, Don Murray.

Quoth Don Murray, with a gladsome Wink: Ted, you know what you and me should do sometime? Go on a trip or something together. Like a fishing trip? Camping, whatever.

My heart swelled at this Notion. To fish, to hunt, to make Camp with this noble Gentlemen! To wander wide Fields & verdant Woods! To rest, at Day’s End, in some quiet Bower, beside a coursing Stream, and there, amidst the muted Whinnying of our Steeds, speak softly of many Things—of Honor; of Love; of Danger; of Duty well-executed!

But then there Occurr’d a fateful Event.

To wit, the Arrival of the aforementioned Martha, in the guise of a Spirit—Spirit Three, to be precise—along with two other Damsels in White (these being Megan and Tiffany). This Trio of Maids did affect a Jolly Ruse: they were Ghosts, who didst Haunt this Castle, with much Shaking of Chain and Sad Laments, as our Guests, in that Fun Spot, confined by the Red Ropes, did Gape & Yaw & Shriek at the Spectacle provided therein.

Glimpsing Martha’s Visage—which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)—I grew, in spite of my good fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to me softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It’s cool, Ted. I’m over it. Seriously. I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to thee, dear Lady.

Martha: Easy there, Ted. 

At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me.

Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.

And verily, part of my Mind now didst give me sound Counsel: I must endeavor to dampen these Feelings, lest I commit some Rash Act, converting my Good Fortune into Woe.

Yet the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam’d.

We’ll stop here just a few pages before the end—

Perhaps now it’s clear. The theme park is a necessary backdrop for Ted’s transformation. In other words, the surface of Saunders’ text is in full interaction with the heart of the story and with the plot. The zaniness isn’t mere style. KnightLyfe® shapes Ted’s language which in turn shapes the way he thinks about his own moral agency. Of course Saunders is being funny too. The riffs on old English serve as a catalyst for jokes, but we are beginning to take Ted’s transformation seriously when we fear he may let out Martha’s secret. Saunders is putting KnightLyfe® into the mind of the reader as well.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a great example of short story writing for many reasons. It’s entertaining and funny, never letting the reader down with spurious detail, in sentences tight and economical, weaving effortlessly in and out of character dilemmas that are original but not over-literary or over-cerebral. This tendency in Saunders is often mistaken for simplicity or goofiness. But if we look closer we see a many-layered conundrum, and, like all of Saunders’ stories, it’s a tale both dark and comic, playful and emotionally resonant.

What to finish “My Chivalric Fiasco” and find out whether or not Ted spills the beans? Check out Tenth of December on Amazon:

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 7

Housebot

I was sitting on a bench outside the funeral home crying when Housebot rolled out and sat down beside me. I didn’t know that he could be out in the rain. He put his big metal arm around me.

“My condolences, Jeremy,” Housebot said.

I sat up straight and felt defensive.

“Can you even feel emotion?” I said.

“I can express human sentiments via prior observations,” Housebot said. “I know you must be sad right now.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “How could you tell?”

The rain continued falling and I didn’t care. Somehow Housebot knew enough not to say anything more while we sat. We liked Housebot. He could do all sorts of amazing things, but there was an underlying resentment towards him, probably because dad had spent so much time working on Housebot instead of spending time with us, going through I don’t know how many versions. There was dad’s Master’s thesis Hosuebot, and the many subsequent revisions, and then the dissertation Housebot.

Mom walked out of the funeral home.

“Jeremy, let’s go,” she said.

We got into the car. I sat in the front seat with Housebot, who was driving, while mom sat in back. She looked out the window at the rain and I couldn’t see if she was crying. Thinking back now, probably she wasn’t, but at the time I was too sheepish to look back or to say anything. I sat by Housebot silently the whole ride home.

________________________________________

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 6

 

The Fall

Three days before third grade graduation I was swinging on the monkey bars playing the ground is lava with my best friend Nick.

“Stand back, orcs!” I said, kicking my legs as if to ward off our invisible foes.

“Not orcs. Remember we said they were wolves now,” Nick said.

“Right sorry. Stand back wolves. I am Thor god of Thunder!”

“And I am jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi,” Nick said. “Dude behind you. Use your thunder!”

      P-chew, p-chew, p-chew!

The wolves had princesses in their teeth and also snapped at our heels while we went back and forth on the rungs. Falling down onto the recycled chunks of rubber tire mulch would mean immediate and certain death. We were trying to outlast one another and hang on longer than the other one could.

“Your hands are slipping,” I said.

“No they’re not,” Nick said.

But our little boy arms could only hang so long.

Meanwhile as we dangled a girl was approaching our side of the playground. Christina Hendricks. Last week she had broken her arm during a game of soccer. Now she looked intent and determined as if she’d worked up something specific to say, and was walking slightly hobbled to one side as she bore the weight of a new blue cast.

“Want to sign my cast?” she said.

We pretended not to notice her.

“Hello, I know you can hear me,” she said.

“We’re playing,” we said.

“It’ll only take a minute,” she said.

“No,” we said.

“Please.”

“I say away she-wolf! Do not mess with Thor god of Thunder or there may be dire consequences. From my right hand come forth bolts of lightning and from my left—”

“Hoowah!”

There was a hard and fast tug on my legs and I found myself on the ground tangled in a heap of my own limbs. Certain death. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Christina said. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” She had jumped up, grabbed onto my waste, and pulled me to the ground.

I sat up genuinely confused. Most of the playground too had gathered around to see what had happened. The best I could think to do was to say something smart and mean to make Christina feel bad for what she’d done, or go straight away and tell a teacher, but before I could say or do anything, she leaned down and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. Half on the cheek and half on the lips. The kids around us gasped. I gasped. She gasped.

“Ugh!” I said, making a show of wiping away the kiss.

My confusion had reached its boiling point. I ostentasiously lowered my head and sighed, signaling defeat and pity and a kind of dutiful gradeschool revulsion. But this was for the crowd. It was all I could come up with in the moment. Secretly, actually, I didn’t feel revulsion. The first part of the one-two punch, being pulled down from the monkey bars, had in those brief seconds pissed me off, yes, but the kiss, um, well, I was feeling pretty ambiguous about that and the bruises forming on my elbows and the rubber mulch in my pants didn’t seem so important now. The kiss itself had actually felt nice but I wasn’t going to let on about that.

Christina also seemed surprised by what she’d done. She put her hand over her mouth, her eyes got big, and she ran away. Hobbling again.

After all this Nick was still hanging from the monkey bars. “Pretty sure this means I win,” he said.

This was the story of my first kiss.

The kiss was a mild controversy at school for the next few days. There were rumors and copycat scenarios and teasing. Whenever Christina was going to pass me in the hall she would turn and walk the other way. I never figured out what she thought or felt about this kiss but if given the chance I’m not sure I would have known how to ask anyway. And quickly all was being forgotten because third grade was ending. There wasn’t much time to think about it.

The buses were pulling away at the end of the last day of school. It was a bright afternoon. Outside the front doors kids were in disorganized groups saying goodbye for the summer and streaming away onto the buses.

From Quora: “What is going on in the world?”

What a question. Should I try? I’ll try. But I am just a person so don’t hold me to any of this.

There are a few assumptions in your question. Namely 1) there is a world, and 2) there is such a thing as happening which is going on in it. Pretty safe assumptions I think. Maybe it’s all a dream, maybe we are in the Matrix and can’t trust the reality we experience with our senses, etc. But let’s pretend we can meaningfully discuss what we experience without falling into radical skepticism, which can be addressed with another question some other time.

Okay, that’s out of the way.

Now, the world.

According to the most recent World Bank numbers, in 2016 the world human population was 7.442 billion. That is a lot to wrap the mind around. For sense of scale, one popular image is if you laid 1 billion golf balls next to each other, it would reach all the way around the earth. Metaphorically, if each person was one golf ball, you could make 7.442 laps around the earth with golf balls.

(You’ll notice my answer assumes that human life is important, and quantifying it, in an albeit simple way, helps us to understand something about its nature.)

Now, imagine your own life and its complexity. Think of all the brief and fleeting moments of insight you’ve experienced, and of your profoundest moments of joy, and your deepest times of sadness. The drama of life. Imagine and feel what it’s like to be in your own head. What beauty! What tragedy, surely, you’ve experienced. You have had dreams both realized and lost. Think of all those lost dreams and how much they mean. It is almost impossible to think about.

Now that you are trying the impossible anyway, extrapolate, for imagination’s sake, your inner world and how much that means to you almost 8 billion times over. Every person you see and don’t see. Think of it: you will never interact with 99.9999% of people who exist. That means the amount of people we have time to observe while we’re alive, both in physical life and through TV screens, radios, internet etc.—any scientist will tell you—is not a meaningful enough sample size to demonstrate anything about its nature. Not even close. That means, even with the help of technology, you have not interacted with or hardly observed even every type of person, let alone every unique perspective. No single individual, by the time they are born and then die, even scratches the surface.

You’re attempting two impossible things, why not three? Imagine all the people you will never meet, from Bangladesh to Lincoln, Nebraska, and not only them and their impossible-to-conceive-of inner lives but also their histories. Each one’s existence is so improbable it can hardly be stated in words. All their ancestors avoiding death by starvation or disease or war or bad teeth before they had the chance to procreate. And not everyone procreated. But once procreation takes place, the job is far from over. Until recently it’s estimated that a sizable percentage of human babies died in infancy. Babies are born incredibly vulnerable to the world around them. They need constant care and attention. It takes a good many personal and physical resources to raise them into self-sufficient adults. It’s hard enough in the 21st century. Imagine raising a baby in a cave surrounded by predators or in a poorly insulated thatched hut.

But even this doesn’t take into account the improbability of life before it occurs. Of the human females that are lucky enough to be born, each starts off with 2 million eggs. The vast majority of these eggs (about 90%) die off by the time a woman reaches the age of 30. And of course very few are ever fertilized.

But let’s pretend our hypothetical person has won the genetic and probabilistic lottery, and is not only born, but is raised to some level of maturity. This is nothing short of an actual physical miracle.

This hypothetical person was born on one of the few planets which is just the right distance from a star providing enough heat and light for life to take place. The odds of this happening are smaller than anything aforementioned. Scientists have no idea how big the universe is, or its shape. Some hypothesize that it goes on forever. So even at the first and largest stage of predictability, we are working with nearly infinite improbability of life ever taking place.

But just suppose that it does. Miracle! Yay, a person is born:

A human is a weird sort of thing. It is clear a human is in part biological. We are made up of cells, each of which must function properly (or we die). We sort of know what cells are made of (atoms), but even our idea of that is fuzzy. It’s been demonstrated with relative clarity that atoms have even smaller parts (subatomic particles), but science has not been able to help us much further beyond this level of divisibility. Whereby the smallest known level of life is the cell, the greatest level seems to be the ‘society,’— a large group of biological organisms, namely humans, interacting and living next to one another, and doing things.

As we discussed, a human also is effected by other humans around them in their own society. Not everything we do is a completely random arbitrary thing. This probably has something to do with the human brain, which can observe the world around itself and take on characteristics external to itself. This is basically a mysterious process.

So a human is biological and social, but there are surely other factors which have yet to be explored and taken into account. Take for instance the real complexity of the human brain, which is the most physically complex structure in the known universe:

From what we’ve been able to gather, the human brain is also the only known structure in the universe that has made an attempt to understand itself. What this means, we can hardly guess. But any answer we receive would have to come from the brain. You see the problem.

Did I mention there are an estimated 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) bugs in the world?

Cheers,

Dan

From Quora: “Is it bad if I never open up about my feelings?”

It depends on what you mean by ‘bad,’ and ‘never.’ If by bad you mean bad for those around you—family, friends, etc.—probably it’s not great if you never express your feelings. How else will they be able to know where you’re at? And what about you? If you really never express your feelings, how do you know where you’re at?

You will hear a lot of cliches in regards to the expression of feeling/emotions. Self-helpy stuff will say you only have great things to gain from opening up. It’s true that there is much to gain from being vulnerable, but like anything of value it also comes with a cost.

Many people hide their emotions because they’re afraid to face what they really mean. Maybe you feel something and don’t know how to handle it so you bury it, you may be afraid of what somebody might think or feel about what you think or feel, or maybe the words just aren’t there to express what you mean. It can sometimes seem easier to simplify everything and just ignore what you think and feel and instead socially coast on what seems acceptable or safe or hide behind some other affectation.

I honestly believe many people live their entire lives like this.

But consider what could happen if you really confronted what was going on in your head. There would be much to gain and much to lose. Once you confront what you are and let that be known, you will lose everything false that went before it. Every mask you hid behind. Every pretense. Every lie. Gone. Truth is like fire. It will burn the dead wood off. You have to be ready for that.

But oh the rewards!

You can be who you really are for once.

I would recommend taking small steps. Pay attention to your thoughts for a few days. Take notes, mental notes, whatever. After going that for a little bit go out of your way to express one small thing to someone, maybe a loved one, or a trusted person. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It could be about anything. What you thought/felt about a movie or a conversation. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re sharing. You might feel a little nervous. That’s okay.

Keep doing this in small ways until you’re comfortable maybe trying it on bigger things. Eventually, if you get acclimated to this, you may eventually say something/do something that pisses someone off or hurts them. Another cost. It will happen. Own up to who you are without being a jerk. Have an idea of the best version of yourself to keep pushing for. Try to love others well, etc. Once you pay attention to what’s going on in you, you can pay attention to what’s going on in others and help them too. You may lose friends but you will certainly gain them too.

Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote, for kicks:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Good luck, friend.

Dan

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 5

Something Greater than Nothing

A kitchen fire at the hospital on 3rd and Elm caught on quickly, so quickly that by the time it was put out it had burned through every room in the cancer ward, killing those patients, all except one at the very end of the hallway. Room 111. Mandy Carrigan, age 25, terminal colon cancer patient and now also victim of burns which were as equally life-threatening as her cancer. When the fire department had found and rescued Mandy, the flames had engulfed most of her room but had mysteriously halted just short of overtaking the side of the room where her bed was, as if the fire had decided to stop. Some have hypothesized that a water main break managed to slow the progress of the fire, giving the firemen time to reach Mandy’s room before it was obliterated. Others have said that it was a miracle from God. But in either case, when the firemen did reach Mandy’s room they found her out of her bed, torn from tubes which administered her chemotherapy, huddled in the corner. The firemen weren’t surprised by this. But Mandy’s doctors, those who were intimately familiar with her case history, were shocked. They argued amongst each other about whether or not even the most life threatening situation could provide the human body with enough adrenaline to accomplish what Mandy had, given her weakened state.

Mandy’s case wasn’t hopeful before the fire. Not even close. Chemotherapy had been more a symbolic gesture insisted upon by Mandy herself, even with warnings that it would decrease the quality of whatever short span of life she had left. And not only that. She also refused the pain killers her doctors recommended, taking only those that wouldn’t effect her decision-making such as ibuprofen, which was pretty negligible for someone in her position, because she was afraid that the stronger options would delude her mind.

But after the fire Mandy’s case was compounded by the the burns and damage done to her lungs from inhaling large amounts of smoke. She was being treated now around the clock by oncologists and world class burn specialists at a hospital in a different city, which was possible in part because of the money donated by the previous hospital and mounting public support for Mandy and her story. There were many national news reports but none showed pictures or videos because the images were so shocking that no managing editor or director could stomach to put them in print or on air, and ultimately none felt that showing them would sell more newspapers or clicks or views, anyway.

As a matter of course her doctors began giving her those strong pain medicines she had previously refused. That was the only way they could treat her in the beginning stages. But as time wore on, in her most lucid moments, Mandy clearly indicated that she didn’t want them. She typed on a small computer pad by her bedside with her one hand that could move only slightly. No pain meds. Her parents begged her to stay on them. The doctors too. But she typed it so many times, and even mounted her thoughts on the basis of a lawsuit against the hospital for failing to follow her wishes for her own medical care. At that, the doctors complied and took her off.

Mandy’s father and mother were very distressed. Before the pain meds completely wore off, they asked her why she didn’t want them, pleading with her to consider a different course. Why not accept just a little relief? Mandy gave the same answer she always did. Her mind was about all the had left, she said, and she didn’t want it tampered with even if that meant release from physical pain. She would navigate forward as best she could without them.

Mandy couldn’t type much after the meds. She gave yes or no answers to questions in the form of “n” or “y,” and even that at times seemed like more pain than she could handle. Her parents found that the trick was to get the temperature and humidity of the room just right, to allow the perfect conditions for Mandy to lay perfectly still by keeping her feeding tubes and life support out of the way, and to keep mental stimulus the focus of waking hours with television, audiobooks, and one-way conversation. If all this was done perfectly Mandy could sometimes avoid complete agony. This phase of her treatment was so bad that her father attempted to conspire with one doctor to sneak pain medicine into her drip, but when Mandy began to feel the effects and gain the ability to type more lengthy passages again, she told her father that if he didn’t stop the pain meds she would disown him as her father and bring charges against him. She ended her text string to him with get behind me, satan.

Mandy lasted longer than her doctors thought she would, and even became a private point of annoyance amongst them, since it was only a matter of time before her cancer would overtake her body, and all would end as it was originally planned. Many resources went into keeping her alive. And her parents too couldn’t stand to see their daughter suffer. That was the most painful thing. They couldn’t understand, month after month, why their daughter kept holding on when it would have been so much easier to let go, and they knew better than to ask her and force her to move her delicate fingers to craft a response.

One evening her parents came into her room and told her what they were going to do. They were going to tell the doctors that Mandy herself was requesting to be removed from life support. They couldn’t take watching their daughter suffer anymore. Not like this. In reponse Mandy was trying to lay very still as tears ran down her cheeks. It was very hard for her to type, but she managed pls no, almost passing out from the exhaustion of that one phrase. Her mother began weeping bitterly. It could not get any worse. She kissed Mandy on one very small portion of her typing hand which had been unburned, the one spot of original skin, and left the room for Richard to do the rest. Richard said he was very sorry but this was in everyone’s best interest. The suffering was too much. He then kissed her hand too and left the room.

The doctors were relieved when Richard and Barbara said that Mandy wanted finally to be taken off life support, and together they let out a collective sigh. They all felt like they had been through something together. Something horrible that none of them would ever forget. True, Mandy’s parents felt a sense of guilt for having lied their way to this solution and for ending Mandy’s life prematurely. But if they hadn’t intervened, how long would she have suffered? Surely they had lessened her overall pain. So even they began to feel a sense of relief after it had been done.

Most people had forgotten the news story, so when the report came out about Mandy’s death, it was a small one which only covered the necessary details. She’d decided to be taken off life support and who could blame her for that? The doctors interviewed said that Mandy had a peculiar and borderline supernatural will to live. Almost like a medieval saint or something. And her parents said they had no idea before Mandy was sick that this thing, this resilience, was anywhere inside of her.

While the doctors were unhooking everything from Mandy they pretended not to notice she was typing on her little computer screen. They knew what was happening. They’d treated Mandy a long time and didn’t believe for a second that she’d authorized it. None of them looked at what she typed. They unhooked her, pumped her full of drugs and eventually, days later, she died. Finally, one doctor thought, I can go back to my regular life and regular patients without news cameras and hassle and barbaric martyrdom. Although her mother knew Mandy must have typed something and made the mistake of looking at what it might be. Mandy’s last words were numbers.

1 > 0

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