Friday, February 26, 2010

Second or Third?

I Am Second is a Dallas-based outreach program. It's distinctly Christian, but doesn't - or at least it claims not to - promote any specific denomination. The campaign has a surprising amount of money behind it, and is most visible from a series of billboards. Each billboard features a single person, the slogan ("I am second") and the URL. Apparently they have quite a bit of Youtube and Facebook presence as well, but I haven't run into those.

While driving past one of these billboards, my wife remarked: "You know, when I was in church camp, the slogan was always, 'First is third!' The sequence was God first, Others second, and Yourself third." She chuckled. "This campaign is like, 'Okay, fine, Jesus can be first. But I am second! And everyone else will just have to wait.'"

I'm sure the founders and members would argue that we're misreading them, that they intend to put themselves second to others as well as Jesus. I have no idea whether they're doing anything worthwhile or not. But I do see a lot of these odd, odd signs - and they sure look like they're putting others third.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Another Roommate Story

At one point my roommate and I were chatting after a late night of study. (Yes, I know it was college, but sometimes we actually studied.) For those of you keeping track, this is a completely different roommate from the one mentioned in my last story. Completely different college, for that matter.

This roommate was taller, quirkier, and much more fun to have around. I'm trying to think how best to describe him, and the phrase that keeps coming to mind is "dangerously whimsical". He had a good sense of the fundamental absurdity of life, and he would occasionally expound - in all apparent seriousness - on whether the Illuminati were secretly running things, the little-understood role of salamanders as the source of all evil in the world, and other such topics.

Let's call him J, because I'm too lazy to make up a pseudonym for him. J and I got along well; the only reason we're not still in touch is because we're both completely horrible about long distance communication. The last I heard, he had been working on an Artifical Intelligence project, right before he quit and moved to California to become a pastry chef.

I am not making that up.

I forget precisely how we got on the topic, but we were talking about comforting fictions. I tend to write stories in which I get to have vast supernatural powers - or at least, I did at the time. Part of that was because, if you're going to be different from other people (and I've always been aware that I was different) it's comforting to think that you're better. It takes a certain amount of age and perspective to really get comfortable with the idea that different doesn't have to be better or worse. Some people never get that.

So I was in my bed, on the top bunk. It was probably 2:30 in the morning, and I'd just finished saying something along those lines. And J got up from the bottom bunk, and walked across the room.

"I know what you mean," he said. "Of course, I'm the destined savior of all mankind." This was a point he had made before.

He flipped off the light, and walked back to his bed. He laughed as he approached. "The scary part is," he added, "some days I almost believe it." And then, in the darkness, I heard a thump.

J had tossed himself casually onto his bed.

And missed.

By a good six inches.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I've mentioned in various music-related posts that a fair chunk of my music comes from dropping a term (or following a theme) through i-Tunes search. A few months ago I did one of these searches on "wanderlust".

This turned up some interesting results. I already had most of the usual suspects: Flogging Molly, Nightwish, Paul McCartney, Bjork. Among the ones that I hadn't run into previously, I found:

1. "Wanderlust" by Action Plus (arguably the best new addition on the list)
2. "Meltdown" by Laura Burhenn (from the album Wanderlust)
3. "Beauty in the Beast" bu Gavin Rossdale (another one where the album name was Wanderlust)
4. "Wanderlust" by Bill Leverty's Wanderlust
5. "Wanderlust" by Frank Black
6. "Wanderlust" by Em&Ali (who get bonus points for their album title: Love Songs For The Wicked)
7. "Wanderlust" by Effron White

For an additional song in this general theme, I'm tempted to suggest the Indigo Girls "Get out the map". Additional songs or ideas for other themes/terms are welcome in the comments.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Knowing things that you shouldn't

I had a roommate in college. Actually, I had several, but this one was easily the most memorable. Mark* was a bit taller than me, lean-bordering-on-skinny, and basically a nice guy. Unfortunately, he was intensely ADHD: he couldn't sit still to save his life, and he had the attention span of a mosquito on crack. He wore on your nerves after a while, not because he was mean or inconsiderate, but because he was so perpetually wound up that it was impossible to relax around him.

Now, I didn't have much room to criticize him; I was a bit of a mess myself, though for different reasons. I was just getting over the discovery that my first serious relationship was an utter failure, and that in trying to keep it going I had not only made some mistakes, but actually behaved quite badly.** I was isolated, nearly nocturnal, and - if we're going to get technical - clinically depressed. The only real upside was that I finally had my feet under me again, and I was trying to rebuild my goals and self-image. I was majoring in Spanish at the time, mainly because the University had forced me to pick something, but instead of doing the usual study abroad (in Spain) for my senior year, I decided to join the Medieval Studies trip, which would visit more or less everywhere in Europe except Spain.

So when I say that I was less than thrilled to discover that Mark was also coming on the Medieval Studies trip, it's important to understand that I didn't really dislike him. It was more that having him around was hard on my peace of mind, and peace of mind was something of a rare commodity for me. I asked for - and received - a guarantee from the organizers that I wouldn't have to room with him, and that was good enough.

Or, well, it should have been.

There were two Universities involved in the program. The one I was attending was a fairly high-powered academic environment, with a heavy emphasis on the liberal arts, populated mainly by upper class and upper-middle class students, and set on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. The other was fairly similar, but set in a more urban environment: Memphis. The students were about evenly split between the two colleges. The program would begin in the summer, on my home ground atop the mountain, where we would spend a month going over background and history before we left for Europe. This was designed to give us some context for, and understanding of, the things we would be seeing later.

It also gave us time to get to know each other. So, during that first month, we spent our days on academics and background; and we spent our evenings and weekends on beer, camping, and related activities. I was recovering from a case of mononucleosis (among other things), so I didn't participate too much. Mostly, I kept my distance.***

I paid no attention whatsoever to what Mark was doing. In fact, I only noticed that he'd missed a couple of days of class because I happened to overhear someone else asking about it. I was aware that he showed back up, and that his story about why he'd been he'd been absent changed a couple of times: at first, he said he'd been camping and rolled over onto the fire; later, he retracted that and said that a waitress at the local all-night diner had accidentally poured coffee in his lap. Again, I only learned about this because other people had remarked on it; it existed way out on the dim periphery of my awareness.

Until I talked to one of my friends... let's call her Robin. Robin was not part of the program; she was up at the college over the summer as part of her own studies. Robin asked me if I knew what had happened to Mark, and (after some consideration) I realized that, yes, something did seem to be going on with him.

So Robin told me a story. One of Mark's fraternity brothers had run into him just after we'd all arrived, and found Mark hanging out with a couple of girls from another college. A bit later, the same frat brother had found Mark lying on the couch at their frat house, with an ice pack pressed to his... crotch. Mark's explanation was that he had slept with one of the two girls, and that she had later told him that she had genital warts. In a panic, he had gone to the Health Center, and gotten something that was supposed to help.

Now, I don't normally put much stock in thirdhand stories. (Everybody knows the game of whispers - somebody whispers something to the person beside them, who passes it on the next person, etc., and by the time it goes around the circle it's something entirely different.) But in this case, the story had been passed on almost verbatim; the details were so precise that I recognized the two girls. On top of that, the whole thing was so perfectly in character for Mark that I couldn't really doubt it.

I could almost see him showing up at the Health Center in a panic, and hanging around until they (probably out of sheer exasperation) finally gave him a cream for genital warts. I could picture him rushing home, thinking that if he had caught something, it would be better to treat it early. It was no stretch at all to imagine him smearing himself with cream, and hoping that would take care of it. And, of course, he wouldn't have read the label; he wouldn't have listened to (or remembered clearly) any instructions he'd been given. It would never have occurred to him that the cream was designed to remove genital warts, not prevent them; that it was, basically, an acid.

His frat brother had asked how bad it was. The answer involved skin grafts.

My first reaction was a sort of appalled disbelief, with an edge of (slightly hysterical) humor. Seriously? He'd... Seriously? But I could see it. I could see it so perfectly. And it explained not only why he'd been out, but why his story kept changing.

(So how did Robin know this? Her roommate, who was down in Texas, was dating the frat brother. So, to be clear: frat brother had gotten the story from Mark. Robin's roommate had gotten the story from frat brother, and Robin had gotten the story from her roommate... and passed it along to me.)

So there I was, in possession of a very interesting bit of information which I had no desire to share with anyone else. I'm sure Robin thought it was okay to tell me, because I'd been Mark's roommate for the previous year; normal people would consider that some sort of social connection. That didn't apply to anyone else on the trip, so I decided not to mention it - partly because I felt like it wasn't any of my business, but mostly because I just didn't want to get involved.

At the end of the preparatory study, there was short break. (After that, we would get on the plane and fly up to Yorkshire for the next phase of study, and after that we would mostly be traveling.) The break was about four days long. It was enough time for people to go home, and most of them did.

Three of us stayed at the University: me; a tall, likable fellow whom I'll call "Pete"; and The Girl. Yes, that girl: the one Mark had slept with, the one who had told him she had genital warts.

So, being the only three students remaining - and lacking any sort of wheeled transportation - we decided to walk over to the beer/burgers/pizza joint in town. And as we were walking down the hill, Pete - who happened to be walking in the middle - asked whether anybody knew what had actually happened with Mark, because "that whole thing was kind of weird, you know?"

And before I could stop myself, I said: "Yes."

I was acutely aware that, on the other side of Pete, the girl had just stopped breathing. Honestly, if she hadn't been there, I probably wouldn't have said anything; but the setup was just too tempting. The impish part of my sense of humor just couldn't resist. Pete was walking between us and looking at me; I don't think he noticed her reaction.

So we walked down the hill, and I told them an abbreviated version of the story. I left out identifying details, and I warned them that I hadn't gotten it firsthand. Pete listened attentively, but that was nothing like the level of attention I was getting from the girl beside him. She was... taut. Somewhere in there, I met her eyes, and I could see her sort of relax as she realized that, yes, I knew it was her; and no, I wasn't going to say anything if she wasn't.

And we finished our walk and had a very nice dinner, talking about other things entirely.

The next day she came to my room and gave me her side of the story. This struck me as both odd and funny, since I felt that if I'd made anything clear in the previous night's story, it was that I really didn't care. She said, basically, that after sleeping with Mark she realized that she'd made a mistake; and that she wasn't sure how to get rid of him (Mark was neither subtle nor quiet). In mild desperation, she'd looked up a list of STDs, chosen the one that seemed the most harmless, and told him that she had that. She assured me that she didn't actually have anything (which was ironic****, if true), and I assured her that I believed her.

And that was more or less it. With one exception, I don't know what became of any of these people, and there's no larger point to this story. It's just something that sticks in my mind, an especially strange part of an already-strange time in my life.

Well, okay... I know a little more about events during the trip, and for the sake of completion I'll add what I know. Later in the trip, while we were staying in Oxford, Mark met and slept with a French girl, thereby establishing that he hadn't done himself any permanent harm. A little while after that, Pete and The Girl became a couple, and seemed pretty happy about it. Whether they stayed together after the trip was over, I couldn't tell you; I transferred to another University for the following semester... but that's another story.

* Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

** Badly enough that if I ever run into that particular girl again, I need to offer profuse apologies from a comfortably safe distance.

*** This was actually a deliberate strategy. I was trying to see if I could live without people, and I was considering the possibility of transferring to another college. I wanted to see if I could go through life without dealing with people. So I made a rule for myself: I would only speak under two conditions. The first was if someone addressed me directly; the second was if I felt I had something reasonably important to contribute. Greetings, casual exchanges, gossip, trivia, and anecdotes were right out. My eventual conclusion was that while I could live without interacting any more than necessary, it wasn't pleasant enough to be worthwhile.

**** In the colloquial use of the word.

Need More Horsemen

We need more Horsemen. Why? Because some days, four just isn't enough.

Pestilence... War... Famine... Death... And, from the Other Text, Pollution. I'd like to add Network Failure. Feel free to suggest additional Horsemen in the comments.

Monday, February 15, 2010

More strange dreams

For the last three nights, I've had dreams about traveling. The first was an airplane ride, except that the pilot was flying us through a city, so we were dodging around buildings and under brdiges and the like. We were going at a crazy speed, and even did a couple of spins; the whole thing was very roller-coaster-ish. I remember thinking, in the context of the dream, that if the pilot made a mistake we were all going to die, but it wasn't really a nightmare; we never crashed. I'm pretty sure we landed, because later I remember trying to find and/organize the group and make sure everybody had what they needed.

The next night was a train, where I was boarding with someone except we somehow got confused; when the train pulled out, I was on it but I wasn't sure if (or where) she was.

The third dream also featured a train, except it was in the process of turning into a forest (like the bedroom in the Where The Wild Things Are, except the tunnel was changing too, and the train was moving at the time). It was beautiful, and more than a little psychedelic. Unlike the first two, this dream didn't have much narrative structure.

I don't do a lot with dream interpretation; I figure that anyone trying to interpret my dreams is in for a bit of rough time, since my personal mythos and symbol sets are more than a little idiosyncratic. Still, there's a definite theme here: these are traveling dreams, and the first two involving traveling without much control, while the third one combines travel with a profound change in the landscape.

I'm cautious about reading too much into this, but I suspect they have to do with the impending birth of Secondborn, who is due in April. Having a child, you see, pretty much consumes any free time that you might have had (or even hoped for). With Firstborn due to turn four in June, I was finally - finally - reclaiming some time for my own projects. In the middle of April, that time is going to dissolve - and if the last time is any indicator, it will be gone for another three years.

So, yeah: it's just possible that my underbrain is feeling a little out of control.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Illegal Immigration

The sudden change of weather in Texas has led to a surge in illegal immigration in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. New arrivals seem to be appearing everywhere, and estimates of their number range from the thousands into the hundreds of thousands. The suddenness of their arrival - and their conspicuous lack of documentation - has sparked concerns that their presence will further worsen the unemployment rate, create further strain on local facilities (such as emergency rooms) which are already operating at capacity, and contribute to crime and other law enforcement issues.

When asked for comment, these strange new arrivals offered no reply. It is unclear at this time whether they even understand English. They have little in the way of clothing, and no apparent shelter. Most appear content to loiter in public places, but there reports of them blocking sidewalks or doorways and refusing to move. Local police admitted that this can be a nuisance, but pointed out that there is nothing threatening in the behavior.

Illegal Immigrant, occupying a public facility

Some public officials have suggested that these immigrants will leave on their own in a few days, but others have voiced doubts: after experiencing the American quality of life, will they really be in any hurry to depart? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The last time I almost fell to my death...

"Gravity... is a harsh mistress." - The Tick

So there I was, in midair, with a rock wall in front of me, air all around, and no idea what was below.

Maybe I should back up.

There's a place called Foster Falls in Tennessee. It's a place where the Little Gizzard creek goes over the edge of the Cumberland Plateau, in a sixty foot waterfall. The area beneath the waterfall is a deep, swimmable pool; and if you enjoy technical climbs, there are several climbing routes in the surrounding cliffs. As with most of that area of the country, it's also completely beautiful.

I'd hiked down with a group from the local college, under the auspices of the Outing Club, as part of a get-to-know-your-fellow-students program that ran just before the semester started. We'd spent the afternoon swimming, and I'd been toying with the idea of diving (well, jumping) from the top of the falls. I was told it had been done before, but it was a long route to get up to the top, and the height was more than a little intimidating.

But I was thinking about it. I was sixteen at the time, so I was probably also thinking about how to get laid, but I was definitely thinking about jumping off the cliff into the water. So, while I was swimming, I went out to the area where the water hit the pool below, and dived as deep as I could. There was nothing; there had to a bottom under there somewhere, but I couldn't swim deep enough to find it. Good. I moved over a few feet and tried again, with the same results. I tried that a few more times, checking my position relative to the falling water, until I'd assured myself that there was nothing in that area to land on.
Okay, so I had a safe landing zone, and a way to tell where that zone was from the top of the cliff. (It was just in front of the falling water.) Did I really want to jump off there? Yes... and no.

By the time I'd finished this, it was getting close to time to go. So, I compromised. About halfway up the cliff, to the right as you faced the waterfall, there was a horizontal ledge. (You can actually see it in the picture above.) If I could follow that far enough out, I could jump into my safe zone from half the height - and without the long, circling walk required to get back to the top of the cliff. Oddly enough, this was not the stupid decision that almost killed me.

So I followed the rocks up to the ledge, then started out across it. It was perfect for this: between four and six inches deep, and the top of the ledge actually angled back towards the cliff face. Even better, there was a second ledge at about the level of my ears. This was only about an inch deep, but it was still a great place for my fingers.

I had my nose in the rock, so it wasn't easy to keep track of my progress, but I wasn't too worried about it. The waterfall was a steady roar, and the ledge should basically run out just before I reached it. So I kept my fingers and toes on the stone, leaned into the cliff, and kept moving.

Then the upper ledge started to rise. It went from ear-level to just over my head. That wasn't a problem in itself, but a few feet further on it angled further up: a foot or two above my head. So now I had a choice: I could stick with the lower ledge (wide, angled in, but now lacking in handholds) or I could follow the upper ledge (much narrower, but more stable). I decided to follow the upper ledge, mainly because I felt better balanced hanging down from it than I did standing on top of the lower ledge with nothing to hold onto.

So I followed the upper ledge, which rose diagonally. Almost immediately, it came to a small plateau - and here the top of the ledge was no longer flat, but actually angled a little bit out. Just beyond, the ledge started back down... and almost immediately petered out. Well, all right. No problem; I could just go back to where I was, and follow the lower ledge. I shifted my weight to do this...

...and my fingers came off the rock.

This was, as you might imagine, a problem. I was twenty-five, maybe thirty feet in the air. My feet were now the only things in contact with the cliff in front of me. There was also a small ledge below me, and if my feet caught that, I was going to go spinning into an involuntary back flip. I did not want to do that.

My father - who has more of these experiences than any human being should rightly have survived - once told me that if you're doing something dangerous, you should always think about what could go wrong, and what you will do if it does. I had actually been doing that, and so when my grip came loose I knew exactly what I needed to do.

So, very calmly, I kicked off the rock. I was now in freefall, but I was also in a position to land with my feet under me. I loosened my body, and made sure my knees and ankles were bent. I took a breath, in case there was water under me. I didn't know; I hadn't had time to look down yet. My heart expanded to about half again its normal size, then did it again - this time to twice its normal size.

Just as my feet touched the water, someone behind me screamed. That triggered my first coherent thought since the rock let go of me: You think you're scared...?

But I'd managed to hit water. I stuck my arms out as far as they would go, kept my legs loose, and came to a stop at the bottom of the pool. I was crouched on top of what felt like a mid-sized rock, maybe two feet across, and my ankles were touching my butt... but all things considered, it was a pretty gentle landing. So I kicked back up to the surface, and got a lungful of air.

It was at that point that I realized that nobody was swimming. They'd all left the water, and were standing in a huddle on the shore. Presumably they'd been watching the whole show. I swam back over, and one of the group leaders (understandably pale beneath his tan) told me that it was time to go. So we hiked back out.

I learned later that the group leaders received a fairly thorough chewing-out for letting me get up there in the first place (as if they'd had in say in the matter; even if they'd yelled, I probably couldn't have heard them over the waterfall). It also became apparent that, despite having been the person in danger, I was probably the least traumatized person in the group. I've never been quite sure what to make of that, but it probably says something profound (about me, or about people in general, or something, anyway).

And I did do some small penance, by leading that same hike the following year and talking one of the new students out of jumping off the waterfall.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

G-d is Pro-Life

So I'm driving home from work the other day, and there is - naturally - a car in front of me. In this case, it's a Lincoln Compensator*, so it's more like a mobile building than a vehicle, but leave that be for the moment. On the back window (because apparently the bumper wasn't obvious enough) there was a sticker that said:

God is Pro-Life

Now, I realize that I tend to find this sort of thing more obnoxious than a lot of people do. I'm a compulsive reader; if you put text in front of me, I will read it. Even if it's just the ingredients on a cereal box, I will read it. So this affects me in much the same way that someone going around shouting the slogan over and over would affect most people: I may agree or disagree, but it becomes obnoxious just because it's hard to ignore.

I actually thought this one was kind of cute. After all, G-d is supposed to have called forth "grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself", "great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind", "the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind"; and, of course, G-d is supposed to have created man. So, yes, you could probably call anyone who created all those living things "Pro-Life".

Of course, G-d is also supposed to have given his creation Free Will (at least in some interpretations - I'm going with the way I was taught**), so he could be considered "Pro-Choice" by much the same logic.

And, since G-d is also supposed to have created the heavens - and since space consists mainly of a lot of... well... empty space - G-d is also clearly "Pro-Void".

None of which has anything to do with the current socio-political argument. Still, as an interesting little bit of conflation, it's fairly clever.

The alternative reading of the sticker - "God Supports My Political Opinion" - is rather less clever, and probably constitutes taking His name in vain.

To quote Anne Lamott, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

* I think the actual brand is "Navigator," but I prefer the malapropism.

** Episcopalian.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Imaginary Friends

Last Saturday my family and I had lunch with some of our imaginary friends. This is about the fourth or fifth time that I've done this, and honestly I've never had it go badly.

"Imaginary Friends" (in this context) refers to people whom you know online - possibly quite well - but whom you've never met in person. This is actually a surprisingly large percentage of the people I know and interact with. Then, in some cases, I meet them, and they become... What? Post-imaginary? ("I'm a real boy!")

I realize that we're all supposed to be afraid of people we meet on the internet, because they could be stalkers or rapists or axe-murderers or Episcopalians or something. (Being an axe-murderer myself, I don't worry much about things like that; but that's what I'm told. I'll even grant that in some scenarios, caution is perfectly justified.) In this case, however, we were members of what might be considered an online community - that is, we'd been corresponding over an extended period of time, in the comments of several different-but-related blogs. So while there was always some possibility that someone would be very different in person, it just wasn't very likely.

I have a theory that while it's far, far easier to be more unpleasant on the Internet than you are in real life, it's much, much harder to be more pleasant on the Internet than you are in real life - at least, over an extended period of time. So far, testing seems to support the hypothesis: everyone I know to be consistently pleasant online has turned out to be equally enjoyable in real life, too. (I've never tested the converse: if someone is unpleasant online, I have no desire to meet them in real life.)

There are basically two things to keep in mind here. First of all, communities do form (and evolve, and sometimes dissolve) online; and these connections are, in their way, just as valid as any others. Second, every time I've agreed to meet imaginary friends, it has been a matter of a group gathering - an extension of the online community - rather than just two individuals meeting. I suspect (though I don't have data) that the latter scenario offers a lot more potential for people to misrepresent themselves, try to charm or deceive potential victims, and generally set up dangerous situations. That said, I also suspect that a lot of the warnings I used to hear were out of proportion to the actual dangers.

Anyway, this was a lot of fun. Counting my wife and child, six of us met in the Londoner in Addison (a suburb of North Dallas), and spent at least two hours chatting and swapping stories. The excuse... erm, the occasion... was to welcome the Accidental Historian to D/FW. (He was moving down from Chicago, following his job.) I wouldn't absolutely swear that a good time was had by all, but everyone present certainly seemed to enjoy the occasion.

Good food, good company, good whiskey. What could possibly go wrong?