Saturday, August 25, 2012

Landscapes, Dreams, Insights

I read somewhere that people around the world dream of landscapes.  I don't know if that's generally true, but it's certainly true for me.  The most memorable thing about many of my dreams is their distinctive settings.  I don't hang out in peaceful meadows; I climb steep, scary mountains, and traverse sweeping, exotic terrains (flying across them, in the really fun dreams).  If my dream takes place in town, that town will have a dramatic setting; usually with steep hills and winding valleys.  The buildings and houses are exotic and colorful, and because the place is so hilly, they are stacked almost on top of each other. My dream environments are more like the settings for myths or fairy tales than real places.  But they also seem familiar, because I return to the same places in dream after dream.  This happens enough that I have the sensation there really is a "land of dreams"; that everyone constructs an entire region in their subconscious, and returns to favored places there when they go to sleep.  And I do favor certain kinds of places, whether I'm asleep or awake.

In fact, my dreams and my preferred environments seem to influence each other.  I like places that remind me of my dreams.  I love towns that really do have exotic architecture, colorful houses, and steep, winding streets.  I love broad, jagged landscapes.  The influence also goes in the other direction: if I visit a place that strikes some chord in my subconscious, it may become a landmark in the country of my dreams.  Even if I never go back to the real place, I return to the dream version again and again.  For example, below you can see the street I lived on for a year in St. Johns, Newfoundland, one of the towns where I go in my dreams.  I used to see this view out my living room window every day, and I still dream about that harbor, and those bright little houses marching up steep streets.  Once I woke up and there was a huge iceberg completely blocking the harbor entrance.  Why I don't dream about that, I'll never know.

View Larger Map

Some dream researchers think dreaming about distinctive places serves a purpose.  They suggest we dream about landscapes because it helps our brains make maps of our environment.  I don't know if I believe this or not, because my landscapes don't much resemble the real world.  I dream of places I've never been, and if I dream I'm in a real place, my dream version of it isn't very accurate.  Sometimes it barely resembles the place at all, and it's almost always more vivid and exaggerated.  In any case, it's clear that dreams and landscapes are connected in our minds.  Dreams and learning may be connected, but exactly how is not clear.  I think the relationship between landscapes, dreams, and learning may be a triangular one, because there is also a connection between landscapes and learning.  Many of the lessons I've learned, and the insights I've experienced, are tied to particular landscapes; terrains memorable enough to be folded into my dreams.  Is it that I remember lessons better if I learn them in memorable settings? Or do I have more insights in such settings?  I don't know, but it's probably a bit of both.

In any case, I've lived in several places, many of them quite distinctive, so the lessons I've learned are linked in my mind to those settings.  When I was a sophomore in college, I worried my parents to death by transferring from a small college in Arkansas to the University of New Orleans.  I certainly learned some lessons there; for example, if there are a lot of parking places open on a certain street, it's because people know better than to park there.  Also, do not mess with New Orleans cops.  I learned the second one through observation, luckily.  Another thing I learned in New Orleans was how much I'm child of the hills.  When I was a kid in the Arkansas Ozarks, I went hiking through the woods every chance I got. I loved the beautiful cliffs, streams, and views, but somehow I still took them for granted.  I never realized how important they were to me until I moved to New Orleans; a city not only tabletop flat, but actually below sea level in most places.  What I really missed was being able to see off in the distance, as I could from my parents backyard in Arkansas:

In southeast Louisiana, you're always down among the trees and the buildings, so you can rarely see very far.  I used to go and drive across the big Mississippi River bridges, just to be able to see off in the distance. (I should say that I've learned to appreciate New Orleans in recent years.  See this post, for example.)  After leaving New Orleans, I got back into hiking, something I hadn't done much since I hit my teens and starting thinking standard teenager thoughts.  I also became a little bit obsessed with mountains.  But the biggest mountains I had ever seen were the Appalachians. I wanted to see real mountains, with craggy, snow-capped peaks.  I got my wish the next year, when I spent a summer in Innsbruck, Austria.  Not long after I got there, I set out to climb one of the big mountains just outside of town.  A friend and I took off, with just a little bit of water, and started climbing...and climbing...and climbing.  When we finally got to treeline, we stopped to plot our scramble up the rest of the mountain, and to congratulate ourselves on having almost made it. It looked like just a couple of hundred feet to the top.  Then I noticed some movement in one of the high, nearly vertical meadows near us.  It seemed to be a group of small animals milling around.  Voles? Marmots?  I borrowed my friend's binoculars, took a look, and then took a seat.  They were mountain sheep--animals bigger than me, and they looked like specks against the mountainside.  My whole visual frame of reference shifted, and the mountaintop had instantly grown by a factor of ten.  It wasn't a couple hundred feet to the top; it was a couple thousand.

The mountain was just too big for my brain to process correctly.  My friend and I were thinking we had just enough time to get to the top and get back down before dark, but now we knew we would never make it.  I was actually a little relieved, because I was exhausted (I had also learned that day how hard it is to climb a real mountain).  While we talked about turning back I scanned the slopes, looking for more wildlife, and saw a quick flash of color.  Sweeping the binoculars to catch up with it, I saw a guy on a mountain bike. Hundreds of feet above me.  Here I was, just realizing this mountain had defeated me, and there's a guy way up above me, who peddled a bicycle up there.  I shook my head, and we started downhill.

Austria made me even more obsessed with mountains than I had been before.  When I got back to the states, I was dying to see the Rockies.  I was especially keen to see Montana.  I got both chances a couple of summers later. A friend of mine was going to Montana for the summer, and asked if I wanted to ride out there with her.  We took the long way--straight west from Arkansas to Albuquerque, and then north, following the Rocky Mountains through Colorado and Wyoming.  I didn't expect to be very impressed by New Mexico.  I was wrong.  West of Amarillo, in the high, flat country of the Texas panhandle, I started thinking that the the fabulous western landscapes I had heard about were all a big lie. It was just plains all the way to the California coast, and after all this driving, we were surely almost there.  That's when we came to the edge of the high plains, and my world got bigger again,  The landscape dropped hundreds of feet, giving way to an unbelievable vista of mesas and escarpments, visible for at least a hundred miles into the distance.  I had never seen New Mexico before, and now I was seeing a sizable chunk of it all at once.  And that's not even a particularly impressive place, by western standards.  People talk about the wide open spaces out west, but you can't fathom just how wide they really are until you see them.  It's impossible to capture in a photograph:  I've never seen a picture that does the experience justice.

Once again, I was stunned by the vastness of the world.  I stayed stunned all the way to Montana, which was as beautiful as I had imagined, just....bigger.  I've been stunned by the western United States ever since.  It seems larger than life, like a place for gods or giants.  Whenever I'm out there I always have a vague sense that I'm dreaming, because surely the world doesn't really have such extravagant landscapes.  But it does.

Years later, I lived in Colorado, and never got tired of the wild terrain, and all the fun activities it made possible.  For a while I had a job traveling every day in the Colorado Rockies and northern New Mexico.  I've been pretty much everywhere in that area, and most of it is stunning. The towering mountains in Colorado always made me hum Wagner's Also Sprach Zarathustra, beating imaginary tympani on the steering wheel.  But I was on the road four nights a week, and it got downright lonesome.  Those mountains and vistas were beautiful, but they don't offer much company--another landscape lesson.  The job wasn't very satisfying, either.  Finally, I hit ice on a mountain road with no guard rail.  While spinning 360 degrees, wondering if I was going off the edge, I decided to change careers.  I resolved to go to library school, and started looking around for one that would accept me for immediate enrollment that January.  That turned out to be LSU, back in Louisiana.

Now I work as a librarian in the swamp country in Louisiana. Louisiana doesn't have mountains or vast, craggy deserts, but I've learned to appreciate its other charms: great music, fun people, and interesting plants and animals.  Louisiana has made me slow down and change my focus, noticing the grandeur of small wonders like dragonflies, lizards, and wildflowers.  In fact, living in this landscape has taught me yet another lesson. I may not know all the secrets to happiness, but I know one for sure: appreciate small, everyday wonders, because you can find those anywhere.  Grab a magnifying glass and head for the back yard.  You'll find something that amazes you.  It's a good thing to have learned.  But I still get out west every chance I get, out to the country of my dreams.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


"These are our few live seasons. Let us live them as purely as we can, in the present."
                                                               - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!"
                                          - Henry David Thoreau, Walden 

When I was in college, I came across Plato's book The Apology. Like most of Plato's works, this one has Socrates as its main character. I had been reading Plato, and I knew Socrates had been tried for corrupting the youth of Athens, and for not believing in the gods of the city. He was, of course, found guilty, and ordered to commit suicide by drinking hemlock. I knew enough about Socrates to find it odd that he would have apologized for his actions, even in the face of death. And sure enough, he didn't, at least not in the usual sense of the term. I turns out the older meaning of “apology” is “a defense, excuse, or justification in speech or writing, as for a cause or doctrine”. The word didn't imply any expression of regret until the 1700's. Socrates wasn't apologizing, in today's sense of the word. He was defending himself; explaining the reasons for his actions. To express this idea today, you have to borrow the original Greek word: apologia.

I'm no Socrates—not in intellect or in bravery—but as I sit here on a rainy day at the age of forty, I feel like it's a good time to compose my own apologia. Or perhaps it should be an apology. I'm not sure yet, and that's part of the reason I'm sitting down to think it over. It's not that I've been corrupting any of the youth. I don't have a lot of contact with the youth, really, and that's one thing I'll be talking about. And, while I'm agnostic about the existence of God, I suppose it is true that I don't pay normal levels of respect to many of the other gods worshiped by wide swaths of our society; gods with names like Conformity, Consumption, and Image. I'm not immune to their influence, but I do try to resist it. What I really feel like I need to explain is my lifestyle. I'm writing this in rented shotgun apartment, half of a duplex in a half-seedy part of town (I don't mean I'm poor. I could buy a basic house if I wanted to). I live here with my bulldog, Louie. I don't have a TV. I've never been married, and I have no kids. Sometimes I talk to people and realize, with a jolt of surprise, that they see these things and feel sorry for me, assuming I must be unhappy with such a solitary, spare life. But I'm not unhappy, and I don't even find it very lonely (though I do miss friends and family around the country). I may be weird, but I ain't sad and lonely.

But as I said, I'm forty. It's a fulcrum age, an age to take stock. I've walked up the young side of the see-saw; now I want to balance for a while and look around before putting any more weight on the other side. I feel a little self-indulgent writing an essay entirely about myself, but I think it's worthwhile for two reasons. First, I want to explain to people who know me why I have lived the way I have (of course, that assumes I really know why, which may be a big assumption). Second, since writing forces you to make your thoughts clearer, I want to work out for myself what it is about me that's caused me to live the way I have, and think about whether or not I should continue this lifestyle. Is my lifestyle solitary and reflective, or detached and self-indulgent? Is it justified? Is it wise to spend the second half of one's life this way? These are important questions, and worth a little self-reflection.

So why do I live this way? Here's the short answer, for people who don't want to slog through the personal history below: I live this way because it lets me do what I want to do, which is try to learn as much as I can about this world while I'm in it. What I have wanted most, for the last 15 years or so, is time. Time to read and learn and think. Most people don't have much time to do these things. They have home improvement projects to work on, mortgages to pay, kids to take to cheerleading and soccer practice. If you have a job, a spouse, a couple of kids, a big house with a big mortgage, and a car or two to pay off, you probably don't have a lot of time or energy to think about life's big questions. If you do, then hats off to you, because I couldn't find the time. Of course, most people should have the kids and the spouse (if not the giant house and overstuffed schedule), because that's what keeps the human race going. And that's what most people want. Just not me, or not so far. What drives me is curiosity, and the overwhelming sense that life is short. I see workaholics, and I always figure they must be very confident in the afterlife. An atheist workaholic is a complete mystery to me, unless they are saving lives in their job. Here's why: I very much doubt that there's a heaven, and even if there is, I think it's crazy to shortchange this life in expectation of an afterlife which has never been proven to exist. What if this is all we get? Shouldn't we set aside some time to figure out what it's all about, or at least try?

Think about how fleeting we really are. Imagine, as Carl Sagan asked us to, collapsing the age of the universe into one year, with the Big Bang ringing in the new year on Janurary 1st. The Earth wouldn't form until September 14th. Dinosaurs would rise and fall between December 24th and 28th. Humans wouldn't appear until around 10:35 pm on December 31, and all of written history would take up the last few seconds before midnight. An entire human life would last less than a quarter of a second, less than the proverbial blink of an eye. Imperceptible. Our days are short, and time is precious. I want to keep a chunk of it, and set it aside for trying to understand this crazy old world; for trying to appreciate its wonders, and perhaps to show other people how wondrous they really are. As I said, not everyone should go through life single and childless so they can think more about the mysteries of creation. But that doesn't mean nobody should. I've stepped off of the normal path of American life, to check out some of the things I've seen out there and report back on them. The reporting back is essential. If I didn't try to convey the results of what I'm finding to others, my explorations would be pure self-indulgence. That's why I write this blog, and why I've made educational posters and websites. Anyway, if you want to know why my lifestyle is so weird, that's the short answer. The longer answer—or my best theory about it—appears below, but I don't expect many people besides me to find it interesting.


Good grief, this is self-indulgent. Oh, well, know thyself, and all that. Besides, it's raining outside. Actually, it would probably be useful for everybody to do this every decade or so, to track how much they've changed. And that might be a rationalization....

OK, anyway, I figure if I want to understand myself intellectually, I need to look two things: my basic personality traits, and the ideas and events that have changed the way I think. As for traits, I've always been unusually solitary, curious, easily-distracted, sensitive, low-energy, and, as a child, depressive. However, I was always very independent-minded. I never followed the crowd as much as most, and I never liked being told what to do. So I'll take a look at those things one by one:

Solitary: I was always an introverted kid; quiet, shy and socially anxious. When other kids roughhoused and shouted, I usually backed-off. That wasn't how I wanted to play. I spent a lot of time by myself, and I didn't mind, except that the other kids sometimes made fun of me for it. Today I'm still unusually solitary and still don't talk a lot, but I'm not really shy. I'm usually friendly and confident, but too much interaction with other people still wears me out.

Curious: I'm as curious as anyone I know. I'm constantly gobsmacked by the wonder of it all, especially of nature. I always have been, except for the hormone-addled teen years, when I was mostly curious about girls. I was one of those kids who checks out all the nonfiction books in the school library, spends time walking in the woods, and asks for chemistry sets for Christmas. I'm capable of becoming interested, for a little while, in just about anything. That's why I became a reference librarian.

Easily distracted: This is probably the flip side of curiosity. I don't have trouble paying attention. I just have trouble paying attention to things I'm not interested in. I'm not absent-minded; I'm elsewhere-minded. I always thought I was like someone with ADHD, except without the hyperactive. Then, a few weeks ago, I read that there were two kinds of ADHD: the hyperactive type and the inattentive type. Hmmm.

Low-energy: I've never been one of those high-energy types. In fact, those are some of the only people I really envy. When I come home from work, I usually just want to lay on the couch and read. Or nap. I would give everything I own to be one of those people who enjoy staying active all day long. Everything except for my bulldog. I'm keeping him.

Depressive: As for depressive, I was one of those kids that worried all the time. I remember asking my mom when I was very little if I would ever have to go to war. I think I was kind of a downer to be around sometimes. Looking back, I see that depression came and went all through my youth, and I can mark the times when it hit—fifth grade, sixth grade, tenth grade, 3rd year in college. Finally I got medication for it. I still take it, and if I get off it, I start getting depressed again. It dulls my emotions a little, but slightly unemotional is better than being in deep despair; negative and fretful all the time. If you've never been depressed, believe me, it is very real, and really awful. Maybe I shouldn't mention the medication, but I don't think people who benefit from it should be ashamed of taking it. Should anemic people be ashamed of taking iron supplements?

Independent: While I had the greatest parents I can imagine, there was one thing I always hated about the basic childhood condition. You're always being told what to do. It's unavoidable, of course. I'm a firm believer that kids would grow up to be savages if they weren't made to be polite and respectful. But I didn't like it. I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I was independent-minded in other ways, too. I didn't think the way my friends did about everything, and I didn't follow every trend (though I did follow some, especially as a teenager). I always had a basic sense that a lot of the things people did, and cared about, just didn't make sense. As a kid, I always marveled at the fact that, as full of wonders as this world is, we spend all day in school as kids, and even more of the day at work as grownups, in order to keep running on an escalating treadmill of material things that mostly have little to do with those wonders. I always dreaded the thought that when you grow up you have to spend most of your waking life working. I'm still kind of amazed we haven't figured out a better way to live. Anyway, the independent thing has just gotten stronger with age. I may have achieved full-on cussedness now.

All these tendencies are things I remember about myself from earliest childhood. Now for ideas and events that influenced how I think. These, of course, were pretty vague when I was a kid.

Nature: The big idea I always had—the main thing that struck me intellectually and emotionally—was the beauty and balance and wonder of nature. Nature was always the ultimate standard of beauty and harmony for me when I was a kid. Growing up, nature always seemed more “real” to me. A lot of what people did just seemed sort of made up and arbitrary. It still does, to some extent. Of course, now I've modified my views on nature. I now realize that nature is only harmonious in certain ways.  It is completely amoral, and often horrifying; and we are right to try to rise above it in some ways. Still, we are a part of nature--a tiny aberration in a vast universe we barely understand, and we shouldn't forget it.

Evolution: Since probably 6th or 7th grade, the idea of evolution made sense to me. So did the idea that the Bible couldn't possibly all be literally true. Noah couldn't have gotten all the animals on Earth in an ark. God didn't create the world by crude magic in 6 days. Once I heard that idea that all living things were related, and that they had evolved over countless ages through variation and selection of the traits that happen to work, it made perfect sense. Now I think that biological evolution is just one example of a basic pattern of creativity that nature uses everywhere: immune systems, learning, brainstorming, the evolution of cultures, memes on the internet; all those things can work very much like biological evolution.

Aversion to church: I went to Baptist churches as a small child. The one my grandparents took me too had a real hellfire and brimstone preacher. Later, my parents switched to a Methodist church, which was much more moderate. But I still didn't like going. I was skeptical about most of the dogmas, and I didn't like the sense of guilt that seemed to pervade everything. The idea that we're all horrible and deserve nothing more than to go to hell, and only by the grace of God would we be saved—if that isn't true, then it's one of the worst ideas anyone ever had. I didn't like the sterileness of church, the goody-goodyness, the canting phrases that people adopted while they were there. You couldn't play real rock'n roll in church; it had to be a declawed, watered-down version. Maybe part of my aversion to church was my solitary nature kicking in. The group-oriented touchy-feeliness of it, the baring of feelings with people I wasn't otherwise close to; it made me feel ill, like someone was touching me that I didn't want touching me.

All those views--about nature, evolution, and religion--are all attitudes that I had from early on; middle school at the latest. Around 7th grade, I can actually start tracking how my views changed, more or less year by year. Around that time—around the time kids start getting into sports and cheerleading—I started wanting to be popular. I started spending less time thinking about nature and ideas, and more time about how to be liked (I was well-enough liked, and not a complete poindexter; I just wasn't one of the popular, ringleader-type kids). While I had been attracted to pretty girls as long as I could remember, now I was getting confident enough to try to figure out how to get them to like me. Then I got into gymnastics, and started to get muscles. When I got to high school I realized I wasn't--as I had always assumed--ugly. In fact, I was pretty cute, and the older girls liked to smile and talk to me; to try to made me blush. I started going to parties, and learned that if you talk to a girl for a while and she smiles at you, she would probably be quite willing to spend the next little while kissing you. I ran track in the spring, so I knew all the athlete guys, and they respected me since, because of gymnastics, I could bench press more than they could. I never turned into one of the really popular kids, but I forgot about being the brainy kid. I stopped reading books in high school. I started equating intellectualism with the music I listened to, as many kids do. I lived in a town of 2,000 people in the Arkansas Ozarks, and so my friends and I all considered ourselves superior because we listened to classic rock, not top forty pop or country. Yep, I was a real intellectual.

I went to college a year early in a bigger small town in Arkansas, joined a fraternity, and had the time of my life. If you had pinned me down about politics, would have probably said I was a Republican. Not the religious kind, though I would have still called myself a Christian. My friends mostly wanted to make a lot of money, and so did I. I had a vague notion that the survival of the fittest idea applied in society as well as nature, so I guess I was a sort of half-assed social Darwinist who thought most poor people had nobody to blame but themselves (hey, lots of people never grow out of this). I got preppy--what can I say, I was seventeen--I've grown up since, and so have the people I was hanging out with. Well, most of them have. But I started to have a bit of an intellectual awakening my freshman year. I took an anthropology class, and while the teacher was mortally boring, we were reading about other cultures around the world that were shockingly different from ours. I started to think, or think again, that maybe our culture was just as arbitrary. Who says ours is the right way? My conservatism, never very well-founded, was starting to totter.

Because I had gone to college early, I didn't discover I was eligible for some good scholarships until my second semester in college. The most generous was at the University of New Orleans, where a Texas oil millionaire named Patrick Taylor had endowed a scholarship for kids like me, who happened to do well on standardized tests. In New Orleans I met a very different group of friends, from all around the country. They were mostly shockingly smart, and many of them were from big cities, so they were much more urbane than me. This was one of the last years that “alternative” kids were still actually alternative, and I started to question my preppiness. I learned that maybe classic rock wasn't the only kind of music that could be good. I took a sociology class, and started to think that maybe you couldn't reasonably expect people born in squalor—the kind of squalor I was seeing in New Orleans—to lift themselves up by their bootstraps with no help. Maybe it wasn't immoral to level the playing field a little.

I also took a philosophy class, and learned how mind-bending and fascinating philosophy could be. I read Descartes, and learned the following big idea: maybe we should question absolutely everything, and whatever remains as undeniably true is what is really true. Descartes went in a different direction with this than me, but the basic idea stuck, and has been with me ever since. I changed my major from pre-med to philosophy (I wasn't studious enough for pre-med, and I knew it). Besides, all the philosophy professors were quirky New Orleans characters who made philosophy seem exciting.
I also rediscovered my love of nature. New Orleans' flatness made me realize how much I liked the mountains in Arkansas, and I was dying to go for a hike. I would drive across the tall bridges over the Mississippi River, just to get a brief view off into the distance. Once, my sister visited, and she was talking about books with some of my friends. I realized I had almost stopped reading books outside of school, so I started again, and soon became rabid about it. In Arkansas, all my friends took the truth of Christianity for granted, though they weren't all biblical literalists. In New Orleans, I started meeting really smart, nice people who said matter-of-factly that they weren't religious. All the ideas from church that seemed uncomfortably at odds with science--the divinity of Christ, original sin, heaven and hell—I thought for the first time that it was OK to admit that they might not be true. I hit upon the old argument that if God exists, and he (or she) is just, then he wouldn't send me to burn for all eternity for using my mind to decide for myself what's true. I still believe this. When I realized there might not be a heaven, it hit me—hard--that this might be all we get. This was another big, big, idea that's been with me ever since.

I had great friends in New Orleans, but I hated it there, because UNO was a commuter school, and very little was happening on campus. I hated New Orleans itself at the time for its flatness and squalor (I've learned to appreciate it since then, because I've actually taken the time to learn about it). I vowed to leave Louisiana and never come back. Never say never.

So, I transferred to Hendrix College, a little, private, liberal school back in Arkansas with the reputation around Arkansas for having a lot of gays, punks, and hippies (the last two are accurate, but I think I met as many gay people at the other schools as at Hendrix. But I tend to make friends with gay people—gay guys, for example, don't bore me to death talking about sports 75% of the time). Most of the kids there were upper-middle class, and pretty smart and literate. But a lot of them seemed spoiled and sheltered compared to the state schools I had attended, which were both full of first-generation college students, many of whom grew up poor. I was trying to transfer into a small school as a third-year student and break into already tight social groups. I got depressed. I started watching a lot of dark movies, and reading all the standard authors most liberal, bookish college kids read—Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey, Jack Kerouac. Most of the philosophy professors at Hendrix were stern and boring, nothing like the characters in New Orleans.  I realized that introductory philosophy classes give you the most exciting stuff to read, and that a lot of philosophy is either dry or impenetrable. Worse, it rarely comes to conclusions that most of its practitioners agree on. Science, I realized, was more successful at such conclusions, because it actually tested ideas, and threw out the ones that didn't work. Besides, I realized, it's a tough to find a job as a philosopher.

So, I switched my major to psychology, which is slightly more scientific and had somewhat better prospects for a career. In social psychology I first started learned about how prone people are to biases and group-think. I learned that our minds aren't really geared for finding what is true, or for understanding themselves, so much as navigating through a complex world using any trick that works. This includes trying to convince ourselves that we are good, right, smart, and basically one of the good guys, even if we are none of these things. I read about depression, trying to figure out why I was prone to it, and made myself even more depressed.

For some reason, I took a class called China Through the Ming Dynasty. That's when I read the Tao Te Ching, and it blew my mind. I got interested in eastern-style mysticism, especially three ideas: 1. That we should pay attention to how nature can work by simply flowing without thinking, and that we need to learn to be able to do this ourselves, because overthinking can get in our way. 2. Words and images are often simply inadequate for capturing the grandeur of reality, which can be appreciated better by opening our minds and not trying to put things into words. 3. We should simplify our lives and appreciate the wonders that come for free. I kept getting more interested in nature, and started hiking again. I became more of a knee-jerk liberal, but I pushed back on some of its excesses, especially the over-the-top political correctness that was becoming popular around that time.

I figured I would get a Ph.D in psychology and be a college professor, but I wasn't sure what area of psychology I wanted to go into. So, after Hendrix, I enrolled in a master's program in psychology at Hollins College, in Roanoke, Virginia. There I started thinking more about cognitive psychology; about how thinking and perception work. I also expanded from Taoism into Zen Buddhism, and started thinking about how that related to the mind. I got interested in enlightenment. I was captivated by the thought that people could attain a higher, or at least different and informative, state of consciousness by meditating and simplifying their lives. I was smitten by the idea that the concept of the self—the feeling that we are a separate entity that is more or less bounded by our skin—is an illusion. We are bigger than that, though it's hard to and keep that fact in mind for very long. There's no clear line where our self ends and the world begins, and the more you meditate and think about it, the more you feel like the world is part of you, and vice versa. Scientists don't talk about this stuff much, but it's not unscientific. There's nothing supernatural or magical going on; it's just a different way of experiencing existence. Unfortunately (I think), I gradually lost this interest, but I still think it's important, and I think I may someday come back around to it.

That part of Virginia is beautiful, and right on the Appalachian Trail. I started hiking a lot, and became even more nature-oriented. I read Annie Dillard's amazing book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which she wrote while living nearby. The book is a long, semi-mystical meditation on nature, in all its glory and horror. Much of it is pure, heart-stopping genius. I would wonder around Tinker Creek, trying to see things the way she had seen them. At the same time, though I can't blame Annie Dillard for this, I become more of the nature-worshipping, romantic-type of environmentalist. I saw “natural” as good, and “artificial” as bad (I'd always had that tendency). I turned into a bit of a luddite, and I became convinced that the population explosion would bring on an environmental apocalypse in just a few decades (I would modify this thinking later).

After Hollins, I started to rediscover my love of animals. I saw a National Geographic article about play behavior in animals, and thought: that's what I want to study. I wanted to combine insights from cognitive psychology with animal behavior, to figure out why animals play. I found a cognitive psychologist who was interested in animal play behavior, and I applied to be her graduate student: The only catch was, she was in Newfoundland. So I moved to one of the more remote places in (or near, really) North America. You should go there sometime, it's fascinating. I got even more into simple-living and intensely ecologically-conscious lifestyles. I even got interested in communes; into back-to-the-land kind of stuff. I was still a semi-luddite, who believed nature was beautiful and harmonious, and human creations were ugly and artificial. But then one night I was talking to a fellow grad student who had been a philosophy/biology double major. She was explaining to me why she was a vegetarian, and I gave the standard response that “Eating meat is natural. Other animals do it, why shouldn't we?”. She immediately asked me if, since lions and many other mammals kill babies that they didn't father, we should do that to? It is just as natural, after all. I was busted. I later learned that this is called the appeal-to-nature fallacy. Just because something is common in nature, that doesn't necessarily make it right. This is a very big idea, and more people need to hear about it.

Most of my friends in Newfoundland were outdoorsy biologist types, so I kept doing a lot of hiking. In classes, I learned more about evolution and behavior. I realized that a lot of what animals do can be explained by the fact that genes act as though they are trying to get themselves propagated into future generations. Evolution doesn't cause animals to behave “for the good of the species”. Far from it. It causes animals to act as though they are trying to send as many of their genes into the future as they can. Whether it helps the group as a whole is irrelevant, from evolution's “point of view”, which is why a lot of animals are not very nice to members of their own species. The logic is this: genes that cause animals to behave in ways that help them survive long enough to reproduce as effectively as possible—these are the genes that are successful, and grow more common over time. Animals sacrifice themselves for their offspring because their offspring carry their genes. However, animals may also sacrifice themselves for their relatives, roughly to the extent that their relatives are likely to carry the same genes they do. Of course, neither the genes nor the animals know why they do what they do. Genes can't feel or think anything, and animals do things because (because in the immediate sense, not the evolutionary sense) they have a strong urge to. They don't think, “It's time for me to find a mate, so I can reproduce and spread my genes”. They probably think something like, “Want sex! Want to build nest! Look, babies! Want to take care of them!”

It's a subtle, often-misunderstood, and incredibly powerful idea. And it probably explains a lot (not all) of human behavior. Why do we pair up with other people, settle down, and have kids? Because that's what our biology tells us to do; that's the behavior that best propagated our genes in the past. Why do we (usually) devote more or our time to helping family members than unrelated people? Because they share genes with us. This doesn't mean these behaviors are meaningless, or that we should stop. It's human nature to do these things, it makes most people happy to do them, and we would go extinct if we didn't. However, it is good to realize why we do them, and consider whether there are times we should tell our genes they're not the boss of us. We can't ignore them, but we can push back against them. After all, just because something is natural doesn't mean it's right.

Anyway, in Newfoundland I was trying to combine cognitive psychology with evolutionary biology and animal behavior. This turned out to be a problem, because some of my professors could only think within the bounds of their discipline. Put crudely, some of the psychologists thought the biology was bullshit, and some of the biologists thought the psychology was. Going to seminars, I realized that college professors fight like cats in a bag, and often with roughly as much reason. I got disgusted with the intellectual provincialism of my professors, and I got interested in the idea of finding unifying themes in human knowledge. I wandered around the library, looking for books about unifying different branches of knowledge, but I was shocked to find that there were hardly any. I started thinking, “What is universal? What is common to everything?” Well, we are all primates, we all live according to the same laws of nature, we are all made of similar cells, which are made of similar molecules and atoms. I realized, in short, that science and nature were a source of unity. So I started reading a lot about science, not just biology, but chemistry, physics, astronomy, and so on.

I finally realized that a common theme in all the sciences is that everything has evolved over time. The universe began very simply, with a handful of types of particles and forces popping into existence in the Big Bang. Then things got more complex. Particles combined into atoms (just hydrogen and helium at first). Matter fell together into stars and galaxies.  Stars forged hydrogen into all the heavier elements, and then blasted them out in colossal explosions: supernovas (most of the atoms in our bodies were once part of an ancient, exploding star). I started to believe that if you think of things in terms of the history of the universe, then that provides a universal narrative for explaining the fundamentals of nature that are explained by the various sciences. It ties all the sciences together in one big, grand story.

Nature has branched out over time, from an initial, single trunk to more and more luxuriant, diverse branches. It's a big family tree, and everything in it is related. The farther back you go, the wider the circle of relation gets. I look a little like my cousins because we share ancestors, and recent ones. I look less like a chimpanzee, because the chimp and I share ancestors that lived several million years ago. But the chimp is a close relative compared to a tree--my common ancestor with trees lived thousands of millions of years ago. However, the tree and I have a distinct family resemblance. We both have cells, mitochondria, DNA, many of the same metabolic processes, and we are both made of similar organic molecules and atoms. I'm even related to rocks, stars, and galaxies, because I'm made of the same fundamental particles that they are; born in the same cosmic genesis.

The further you look back, the more common ground you find. If the history of the universe can be seen as a big, branching family tree; then much of human knowledge can be seen as a tree as well. Physics is at the trunk, chemistry is a little higher and more branched, and biology more branched and complex still. Even history can be seen as a branching tree of cultures, languages, and ideas, although those branches merge as well as split. By the time you get to the arts and humanities, the tree metaphor breaks down, at least to the extent that they are more about experiencing and interpreting the world than explaining it. Facts and histories may not be the point, and even if things like artistic trends branch and diversify like species (and they do) the branches in the humanities are so complex that diversity is much more apparent than unity.

Anyway, this story is getting way too long. I got obsessed with the idea of writing a book, conceptually unifying big chunks of science, history, and other branches of factual knowledge, by telling the story of how the universe has evolved--branching and building over time, combining an initial unity with increasing diversity. Tall order, right? Well, I was 24, I thought it would just take a year or so. Besides, by that time I had realized I wasn't single-minded enough to be a professor. Many profs are focused almost to the point of obsessiveness on one highly-specialized topic. I would always be interested in a wide range of things. I left school to write the book.

I worked on that book for the next ten years. I lived many places, and worked various crappy jobs. I did it because I had told people I was going to write this book, so damnit, I was going to write it. Also, I really believed in it. I thought it was really important for people understand how different branches of knowledge fit together, how we and all other things have a common heritage, and how short our lives are compared to the abysses of time the book covered. I still believe all these things. I also thought that people have to find common ground, or we would go extinct and take a bunch of other species with us. I believed the next century would be the crucial one in human history, because it is the inflection point in a massive explosion of human population and impact, unprecedented in history. I was trying to show in the book how shockingly small a century is, and how human populations growth is like an explosion. I believed that if it the book influenced just a few dozen people to work toward avoiding the catastrophes of the next hundred years, then it would be worth sacrificing things like marriage and children (especially since I had never been all that drawn to those things). I believed more and more that, if I had just one life, I had to figure out what was going on as much as I could, while I could. I wanted to understand this crazy, beautiful, often horrible world while I had the time, and the book was my way of doing it. I got more solitary. I avoided getting involved with women, because I couldn't devote a fair amount of time to a relationship and still finish the book. I got very jealous of my time, always looking for time to read and write. I eventually lost my fascination with the mysticism of Taoism and Zen, and became more enamored with knowledge, with finding facts and connecting them into a meaningful whole.

As I wrote the book, though, I became less convinced of the absolute dichotomy between nature and society. When I started it, I believed that a lot things about human society—as opposed to the natural world—were unstable, out of balance, and arbitrary. And many of them are. However, slowly, I started realizing that nature and society weren't always that different. Lots of traditions in society do make some degree of sense, even if they are “made up”. Laws, for example, are an evolving system, like many evolving systems in nature, and they represent an accumulated set of (mostly) reasonable solutions to human problems. I started taking the idea more seriously that nature wasn't always better. Nature is blind and amoral, but people don't have to be. I began to understand how complicated environmental problems were, and how simple-minded ideas like “all growth and technology are bad!” are silly. Growth and technology can cause environmental havoc, but they can also solve it. If you're skeptical (and you should be) here's an example. In the seventies, many environmental scientists thought the human population would explode exponentially, bringing on Mad Max world. Populations certainly can explode exponentially, and it really is scary. However, as economies develop in less-developed countries, people lose their incentives to have a bunch of children, and population growth rates go down. This is called the demographic transition. So the explosion is not totally uncontrolled, and economic growth can actually prevent population-related damage to the environment. “Sustainable growth” is not necessarily an oxymoron. Of course, as people get richer, they may have fewer babies, but they consume more per person, and then you have another issue. I don't mean to say I stopped worrying about the environment. We've got problems, and big ones. I just realized that nature isn't always good, the things we create aren't always bad, that environmental issues are enormously, mind-bogglingly complex. Not only that they seem even more complex because of all the interest groups trying to spin things one way or another. Anyway, I realized I wasn't going to be able to offer the kind of simple, straightforward view of current trends that I hoped to end my book with.

I also started realizing the book was too big to finish. Scientists were discovering things faster than I could read about them. I also began to see that science and factual knowledge wasn't going to cut it for most people. They were never going to find these things totally satisfying. The spectacle of a grand, evolving universe that ties things together into a great story may be deeply appealing to me, but it doesn't have the human interest most people want. Besides, I started to see that you can only get so far with bare facts. You also have to start thinking about meaning and morality, and science doesn't really tell us much about that. It gives us the facts we need to know, and tells us about the consequences of our decisions, but it can't tell us which decisions are the morally right ones. It can't tell us, at least not entirely, how to lead a meaningful life.

 In short, I stopped believing in my project as fervently as I had, and I realized the book was far too big to be publishable. When I turned 35, I decided to stop and get on with my life.  I put the book online, at I took some of the illustrations from the book and made an educational poster, and sold over a thousand copies of it. When I ran out, converted the poster into a website, at

However, I had learned an enormous amount of stuff. I figured that I should find a way to put that, and my rambling, scatterbrained intellectual curiosity, to use. So, I went back to library school, to be a reference librarian. In library school, I got more social again, and re-learned how much fun it is to hang out with other people. I also confirmed my suspicion that most people don't give a damn about any of the things I had spent the last ten years thinking about. The story of the universe was never going to strike a deep chord with most people. Most people need to think about how they relate to other people. I started thinking maybe the material universe doesn't matter as much as I thought it did (I mean, it's pretty important), and wondering what really did matter. I'm still wondering, and I probably always will.

After library school, I moved to a small city in south Louisiana to work as a reference librarian. There aren't as many social opportunities here. So I started reading more. I started writing again, but on a small scale, with this blog. I started reading about ethics, wondering about the foundations of ethics. Here was a new puzzle for me. Why be ethical? I mean, I think it's important, but what are the foundations it rests upon? It's a fascinating question with no easy answers, even for religious people. Of course, now my rambling brain has rambled a little further. As I've seen people online start to bicker more and more, I gotten more interested in civility, and its relationship with critical thinking and logic. A lot of the blustering online isn't just rude, insulting, and counter-productive—it's also illogical. If you avoid logical fallacies, like attacking a person instead of their argument, it's a lot harder to be nasty. Rude and illogical go hand in hand, at least in comment threads. Anyway, that's where I am now. Who knows what I'll be reading and writing about in 5 years?

If all that doesn't justify why I've lived the way I have, I hope it at least explains what I was thinking as I was doing it. Of course, way back at the beginning of the massive post, I was setting out not only to explain how I've lived in the past, but to think about whether I should continue living that way in the future; whittling down life's complications so I have time to read and think. But to be honest, it's almost stopped raining, and I'm tired of writing. If I'm going to think hard about that, I'm going to have to do it another day. Now my brain is mushy. The big question, of course, is whether it's nothing but self-indulgence to spend so much time reading, thinking, and writing (I'm assuming a little self-indulgence for the sake of pleasure is justified). And the answer to that lies in what I do with my conclusions. I tend to think that if a few dozen people read the stuff I write, and are influenced in positive ways, then I'm justified in spending some time doing it.

Of course, the other question is, how important is it for me to spend my time doing other things? If I were married and had children, it would be totally inappropriate to spend so much time reading and writing, and so little being a husband and father. But I've already indicated that I don't think everyone should feel obligated to get married and have kids, much less to get on the whole treadmill of keeping up with the Jones's in an escalating cycle of consumption. I know for sure that my time reading and writing is better spent than if I were working extra hours to make payments on a Lincoln Navigator or McMansion. Perhaps it would be better spent doing volunteer work, or adopting children. But those things aren't what my basic nature makes me want to do, and when you reach forty, you start to have a good idea of what's constant about yourself. What I want to do, again, is figure out and appreciate this world as much as I can, in the short time I'm here, and try to help other people do the same. I'm not trying to write a massively over-ambitious book any more, so I don't need to be so jealous of my time any more. No one's going to die if I never get around to reading some book. But I don't ever want to lose all my time for learning and pondering. If we can't stop to think and get our bearings, then life passes as a big, confusing mystery; a frantic dash for money and prestige. Socrates famously said that “The unexamined life is not worth living”. I wouldn't go that far, but I know the examined life is the more satisfying one, at least for me.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Memo: Keep Up the Good Work

To: Ministry of Communication

Dear Colleagues:

The Director has been following your recent work, and is very pleased with the quality of public debate you've helped promote in the United States. Social networking sites have been a godsend to us (if you'll pardon the expression). However, we've become aware of a small but troubling movement calling for “civil public debate.” As this yawn-inducing phrase indicates, the movement isn't exactly capturing the public imagination. Indeed, its commitment to restraint, modesty, and rationality should insure its failure. It doesn't appeal to the more primal emotions, and should therefore be no match for our more robust methods.

Still, the Director feels that if the civility advocates learn to spread their message effectively, they could be a thorn in our side. As a countermeasure, we have prepared a message to be funneled to our contacts in both American political parties.
Dear friends,

With all the progress we've made against our opponents, we have good reasons to congratulate ourselves. Our courage and zeal have paid off--just look how mad the other guys are! They're really starting to hate out guts.
But there are people questioning our success.  They claim the rhetoric is getting too heated, and they're calling for “civility." Folks, we can't let this kind of thinking slow us down. Our progress so far has been based on untempered passion and self-assurance. Now these civility advocates are bleating about how “complex” reality is, and how we need to be more “reasonable.” Well, when have our opponents ever been reasonable with us? This talk of moderation will only let them get the upper hand. Our country is like a house on fire, and we have to fight fire with fire.
So forget this stuff about reality being complex. What we need are simple, catchy slogans. We need punchy one-liners. We need talking points we can repeat until we don't even need to think about them anymore. Logic and science are fine when they tell us what we want to hear, but they just don't light a fire under people. We also need good, solid denunciations. We need boogiemen. That's why we have to get out there on Facebook and Twitter and keep the fear and loathing hot. If you're going to snipe at someone, don't just say it; say it with feeling. Use multiple exclamation marks; and don't be afraid of the caps lock button. A SENTENCE LIKE THIS SHOWS HOW PASSIONATE YOU ARE, AND IF YOU'RE PASSIONATE, YOU MUST BE RIGHT!!!!!
Try to make converts if you can. As soon as someone changes their mind and joins us, they become one of the Good Guys.  So get out there and argue. Everybody knows there's no better way to convince someone than saying what an idiot they are in front of as many people as possible. If it didn't work, why would so many people try it? If your opponent hasn't seen the light, a few more good insults will usually bring them around.

Of course, some people are hard-headed, and won't believe you no matter how stupid you say they are. If they absolutely won't listen, just ask yourself this: were you really trying to convince them anyway? Of course not. You were trying to make US look smart, and THEM look bad. And that's OK, because we are smart and they are bad. Otherwise they would agree with us!

Most people aren't going to change their minds about anything, regardless of the evidence. Do we? Absolutely not! Still, we can't let our friends be lured to the dark side. That's why we need more preaching to the choir. We need more bandwagons; more strength in numbers. It takes real courage to stand up for something when all your friends do, too.

Some will claim we should be fair-minded and truthful, but how can we, if the other side won't? This is like a nuclear arms race, and some things you have to see through to the bitter end. We have to embrace vital rhetorical tools like hyperbole, rumor, and wild accusation. It's amazing what people will believe. They'll even spread the message if you phrase the email correctly. Don't worry...most people have never even heard of
If you run into one of those irritating people who make calm, thoughtful points, just throw up a straw-man caricature of their argument and kick the stuffing out of it. And never underestimate the power of simpler forms of ridicule. A good horse laugh has stopped many an argument in its tracks. Finally, never attack someone's argument if you can just attack them. Do they look funny? Point it out. Some say ad hominem attacks like that are fallacies. Maybe, but a good fallacy can get you a long way in today's world.

Finally, don't worry about making people so mad they'll get violent. It's not like you're looking them in the eye. This is the age of the internet--just insult the ones that live far away from you; that's the safest thing. They probably won't take it out on anyone else. The bottom line is, there may be risks associated with the kind of robust public debate we're advocating, but they're worth it. Our side has everything to gain, and our opponents have everything to lose. People who say we should find common ground have their heads in the clouds. Besides, it's not like Americans would ever actually go to war against each other.
Feel free to modify this message as you see fit.  However, this may not be necessary, as it was written by the Director himself.  He has thousands of years of experience at this sort of thing, and his track record speaks for itself.

From:  Office of the Director
One Ninth Circle