Wednesday, February 27, 2008

In Which I Use Many Footnotes

Recently I've been contemplating changing all the illustrations for this blog to things I draw pathetically myself in Paint. Not so much because I think it would be visually appealing (stimulating, perhaps), but more so because it brings to mind the fond memory of the time that I sent my friend M* a particularly choice piece of Paint art.

M* was, at that time, in her first job outside of college, and had let me know that she was so bored that she would drink glass upon glass of water, simply so that she would have to get up and go to the bathroom, such that she would have something to do. I have experimented with this singular piece of genius myself from time to time, and let me tell you, it works (an aside: the bathroom in my building has become a uniquely entertaining place. Today alone, while I was in there minding my own business, a woman went into a stall all the way at the other end and started saying "Ron? Ron?" and then Tsk!-ing wildly whenever this Ron did not respond, and angrily rolling out copious amounts of paper. I left in haste)!

So, I suggested that in order to alleviate her boredom, M* ought to start laundering money from her company, such that she could retire at age 25 in a glorious tropical paradise. The picture that I sent her was my interpretation of her, in a solid gold bikini, dancing in a rain shower of her laundered money. And yes, of course it was glorious.**

My other thought lately was to purchase a digital camera, and though that option may be less outstandingly! creative than drawings in Paint, it is a bit more pragmatic. For example, this past week Dave*** and I were in New York, where we did many wonderful things, including attending the wedding reception of my friend Sarah. I would dearly have loved to document that event, and many others, but since I don't have a digital camera it became impossible. I did later discover that Dave brought his camera along specifically so that I could take pictures of things, but he never once mentioned this to me until after we had returned to Chicago****.

This was the first time I had ever met Sarah's now-husband Ben, but he did make a good first impression when he immediately got into a heated discussion with me about Cormac McCarthy's new novel The Road. I know that I'm a bit late getting around to reading this novel, and that because of Oprah, 90% of humanity has already shoved at least one full copy of this book into their mouth to show proper affection, but that's just not the way I do things.

I won't get into the finer details of our conversation, partially because beer was involved and so I can't recall the whole thing. But I will say that the book thoroughly occupied my attention and reminded me of how easily McCarthy can alter one's sense of beauty to include within it the terrible and the diasporic.

The back of the book, I believe, calls it "Perhaps [McCarthy's] most personal work yet," and I thought that statement actually sells the book a bit short. When people think that they are getting into an author's heart, they seem to think that they are getting what they deserve. But The Road, while I'm sure it contains many elements of McCarthy's mind and memory and soul, seems to me to reach beyond that - beyond the desolation of a single human heart, and into the desert that humans all share.

That is what a good reader***** deserves from a masterpiece.

*Name withheld to protect the innocent
**Though not so glorious that I didn't forget to save it when my college deleted my old email account. What you see is a bastardized reproduction. Curses!
***Dave is not innocent, which is why I never try to protect his name. In fact, I don't know why I chose to start doing that in this post at all. I suppose it's because I recommended money laundering to someone I later depicted in flimsy swimwear.
****See? Not innocent! J'accuse!
*****I'm very much fascinated by the idea of a "good reader," and while I do believe they exist separately from bad and mediocre readers, I have yet to convincingly define them for myself. I do recommend, as a meditation on the subject, Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Vaguely in favor of heart-shaped things

Do I hate Valentine's Day, or do I love it? Or, to put it better, am I fully indifferent to the concept, or merely ambivalent?

If I'm ambivalent, it's the holiday itself that made me this way: fate has never destined me for a truly great or romantic Valentine's, and more and more, I think that's the way that I want it. Like so many people that I know, I find the holiday trite and unnecessary - why would you ordain a day on which to spontaneously show your love?

To give an example of why Valentine's Day doesn't exactly get my heart beating all pitter-patter, I'd like to relate a story which has nothing to do with romance, though it is tinged with the bittersweet quality of unrequited love: My junior year of college, Dave and I thought that a fun way to spend the day would be to go play with puppies. Unfortunately, in Iowa our options were a bit slim in this department, and we ended up at the Iowa City Pound.

At first, we thought we would be stuck in a room full entirely with cats and the scent of stale urine (pitter! patter!), but did eventually make our way to an outdoor concrete enclosure, where we fell in love with two vagrant mongrels: one was a puppy named Huxley who looked exactly like a bear, with huge paws, an unfathomably large nose, and the softest fur you've ever touched. I loved Huxley in the same way one loves Brett Favre, which is to say, as if he were a big stuffed animal.

The second dog, whose name I have regretfully misplaced in the annals of memory, was a different sort of a matter. Huxley was a baby, and it was clear that he was only going to be in the shelter for as long as it took for someone to come to the pound who had the legitimate means to adopt a dog. This other dog - let's call him Rambo - had bigger problems. Rambo had been abused at some point in his life, and was deathly afraid of all men. He sidled shyly into the enclosure, giving Dave a wide berth at first, but eventually allowing both of us to pat him and tell him he was a good dog (as I will do for any dog within hearing range). Rambo was also a documented (perhaps "established?" Does one really document such things?) chicken killer, which is a significant liability in farming country. When we left at the end of the day I was not concerned for Huxley, but Rambo weighed upon my conscience.

That sums up, more or less, how I feel about Valentine's Day: it makes you happy, but only temporarily, because the joy is forced. Candies & cupcakes? They give you a sugar rush, sure, but that results in a sugar crash (like drugs!). Fancy dinner out? Great, until you realize that the prix fixe menu is worse than what you'd usually get at any given restaurant, and the banter from 1st dates at nearby tables is exponentially more awkward and obnoxious.

However, I try not to be more cynical about things than I must be, and so I am choosing to be happy that it's Valentine's Day, if only for these two reasons:

1. I will pretty much take any opportunity to drink champagne
2. If not for Valentine's day, what would happen the the Heart-Shaped Things industry? This is a serious matter to be discussed at length.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

And furthermore, what?

Some days, you are at work pushing money around from one big company to another, and you just start to wonder, what is the point of human existence? Granted, this is a question that has consumed philosophical minds for centuries - indeed, for perhaps as long as human beings have been conscious. Not just as long as desk jobs have existed. But I digress.

Probably because I grew up reading fantasy literature, this question has always had a somewhat sci-fi edge to it in my mind, and that impression was only heightened by the short article I read today on Discovery News about human fetuses being created from the DNA of three parents.

The logic behind these experiments is very simple: if there is a small part of DNA in two parents which could result in a debilitating disorder, using the DNA from a third-party allows science to help the embryo bypass the potentially harmful effects while still creating a child from using boy & girl parts from the original two people. This makes a great deal of sense to me, because as much as the sci-fi nerd in me has bred an inborn fear of the Apocalypse (no, not the Biblical one! Perhaps I shouldn't have capitalized?), I am generally in favor of medical science. And not being ill.

However, I can't help but wonder what this type of in-vitro fertilization will eventually mean for our conception of mankind. Scientists in the article insist that "it would be incorrect to say that the embryos have three parents." Yet it seems to me that human beings, when conceptualizing their own "whatness" (I choose this word because I've already used "being" too much, plus it makes people sound like robots or objects. Cool), do not think in such simple, logical terms.

Adopted children, no matter how much they love the parents who raised them, often get the urge to know or at least meet their birth parents. Not because they find the families that they know inauthentic (keep in mind that I'm generalizing here based on the media perception and documentation of adoption), but because there is some small part of them that wishes to view their origins - the genetic building blocks that came together to result in their very existence.

With the nature/nurture argument placed on temporary time-out, I can sympathize with that logic. Because looking at any part of my body, or contemplating any single aspect of my own mind, brings the inexorable belief that we are complicated and fortuitous little chemistry experiments, and that researching my biological and psychological roots is the sensible first step to understanding myself. I mean, I'm not there yet, but it's a start.

And so I find it hard to believe that a child who carries the DNA of three people would not be curious about the third contributor to their genetic makeup - that some small part of that child would not consider that person a parent (at least when they got old enough to be cripplingly self-analytical).

So while I don't believe that the essence of one's humanity is negatively affected by starting out in a lab, I do think that this discovery is more definitive than simple in-vitro fertilization. Because it is contributing a new angle to the age old question: what are we? And while this may be less important, it is contributing no answers.

******Image credit: 'Good Morning in Room 220' by MegElizabeth on

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