What’s Next after Awesome?

Our American slang morphs and evolves, just like the rest of all languages. I don’t keep up with all of it, but lately I have become more than acutely aware of the overuse of the word “awesome” to describe, refer to, or comment on just about everything. Actually, it’s been bugging me for quite a while and so I just have to say something.

I myself grew up in the days when the in phrase was “bitchin.” OK, so I’ve dated myself. Then followed: cool, hot, hip, far out, rad, bad, blown away, OMG, “the bomb” and “you totally rock” — not necessarily in that order. The problem I have with “awesome” is this: if everything is awesome, then what term do you use for something that truly evokes awe and wonder, like a near spiritual experience, such as seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, or seeing lions in the wild in the African bush, seeing certain Hubble spacecraft photos, or witnessing the birth of a child? Many of my acquaintances use awesome to comment on a good job of parallel parking, a great restaurant dessert, a grand slam in bridge, a good movie, a favorite song, a favorite actor or actress, maybe even a favorite teacher – “he’s awesome.” So, do we need to invent a new word or phrase for those moving, amazing, incredible occasions that almost take your breath away? Continue reading

There’s Change and Then There’s Change

I’m referring to change in two ways — the constant ebb, flow, morph, re-engineering, nuance, invention and innovation that is a regular part of all our lives, our society and our species.  That is the kind of change dealt with in Who Moved My Cheese?  And then there is pocket change — dimes, nickels, quarters, etc.   I’m going to discuss both.

I just read yet another article about how folks are freaking out about one more report from the feds on the push to eliminate US $1.00 bills and replace them with those Sacagawea golden dollar coins that supposedly everyone hates.  One of the findings is that the paper-bill-to-metal-coin switch being considered would save taxpayers an estimated $4.4 billion over the next three decades.  Is this a no brainer or what?  For that kind of savings, when fiscal cliffs and economic recessions are the topics that have arguing politicians filibustering and talking heads drawing blood, and when Social Security is in jeopardy, I say just do it! Continue reading

Affairs of the Heart and Soul

I’m once again pondering the mystery of why people have affairs, in the wake of the David Petraeus debacle and the recent “scandal” involving the estrangement of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, stars of the Twilight movie saga (because of her infidelity).  To me, pondering such mysteries and making any sense out of them is right up there with the mystery of life, the nature of God, the nature of the cosmos, and the mystery of good, evil and death.  In short, the full measure of understanding is beyond our grasp.

People have been having affairs since the dawn of time.  History is full of such relationships.  Many of the ones we know the most about have involved monarchs and famous leaders – Edward VIII of England, Cleopatra, the Caesars, many American and European politicians including presidents:  Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few.  And there are priests and clergy, and so many of the Hollywood/entertainment set that one couldn’t possibly keep accurate count.  Power and sexual shenanigans seem to go hand in hand.  The evidence suggests this is a fact.  So the Petraeus affair is not a singular occurrence in an historical context.  And, we should realize that this behavior affects many ordinary folk we never hear about – many of our neighbors, co-workers, even members of our extended family.  And those folks are rarely in the news.

And even more mysterious is trying to understand why the general public is so fascinated with these happenings and so willing to weigh in and judge, or defend, one party or the other.  It is the stuff of potluck gatherings, church circles, coffee klatches, dog park encounters and car pools.  We salivate over the scandal rags at the market’s checkout stand.  When a certain type of human behavior repeats over and over and over again with almost predictable regularity, like the cycles of the seasons, or the rising and setting of the sun, why exactly does such activity cause so much interest?  I never hear people talk quite so excitedly about how the sun comes up, the sun goes down, the moon is full, the moon is waning or similar weather and cosmic occurrences, except when there are unusually beautiful sunsets that take your breath away, or eclipses or planetary phenomena that only happen every 4,000 years – those are surely worthy of comment. Continue reading

Walking with Lions

In my earlier essay “Anticipation and Serendipity,” I commented on my anticipation of an African trip.  So now the trip has come and gone, a great eco-tourist safari.  During this trip I had a rare opportunity to view wildlife up close and personal.  It was a journey I never thought I’d take, but then reality often has a way of turning out very differently than our initial expectations and suppositions.  It was a rare opportunity and I will have terrific memories for a very long time.  Luckily, any misgivings I had were for naught and the experience far exceeded any of my preconceived notions.  In fact, it was surreal and magical.

My vacation in Africa covered three countries – Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  For a “commercial package tour,” this one far surpassed many I’d taken before.  And the setting couldn’t have been more amazing.  The windswept, seemingly desolate Kalahari Desert was bleak only on cursory examination.  But upon a closer look, the majesty of the many unique life forms became evident.  The Okavango Delta is a permanent swamp in Botswana, a jewel of an oasis in the desert, gathering waters that flow down from the plains of northern Africa during the annual flood cycle.  It teems with colorful bird life, insects, lizards and geckos, crocodiles and hippos, lions, Cape buffalo, elephants, impala, kudu, baboons and more.  It is sensory overload on several levels.

A very special optional adventure I took advantage of was a “walk with lions” in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in an area near the falls themselves.  Here lions are bred in captivity, rehabilitated and then released back into the wild.  The aim is to study the habits of large carnivores and help safeguard the future of the species, whose numbers are shrinking at an alarming rate.  Visitors are allowed to walk alongside young lions and interact with them as they play, learn to hunt and prepare for release.  I had heard about this opportunity from a friend who had taken the same safari trip about six months earlier than mine, and I had seen her photos, walking with a lion and petting one.  I was amazed.  I didn’t know such a thing was possible.  And was it safe?  Apparently so, otherwise, they wouldn’t let so many visitors participate on a daily basis.  Continue reading

Piecing the Broken Story

In my quest to see what other essayists are writing, I peruse various internet sites.  They sometimes offer tips for newish writers.  And there I found this, on a blog by Jeff Goins (http://goinswriter.com/):

 Great heroes sacrifice themselves, right?  So do just that.  Avoid the parts that make you sound amazing.  Instead, focus on the broken, ugly parts of your story.

Not exactly new advice, and an odd direction to pursue on might think, but it reaffirmed what I read in other places.  That, along with the usual directives to write every day and write what you know.  In another essay, I talked about how our stories unite us.  But I think that in some ways our stories can also divide us, set us apart, make us feel alienated and unique in ways we don’t desire.  Especially if you feel your story is decidedly different than those you see being lived and enacted around you.  I avoided the ugly and broken parts of my story, at least for public consumption, because I didn’t want to make it look like I was wallowing in self pity or trying to capitalize on it.  Over the past year or so, I’ve read more and more tips by other writers and this theme keeps appearing:  be authentic, write about the scars, and the defeats, and the hurts and the failures.  It is liberating say the writing mentors, and freeing and cathartic.  And though I did write about a few things, like my aunt’s schizophrenia, there is more.  There is always more.  Even if you are retelling the same story. you can always tell it in a new way.  There are always more layers, more strata, and more nuances.  You can always hold it up to new light and peer into the cracks.  There is always more in the compost heap of memory to be turned, and unattractive elements to highlight.  

As a child, and a young adult, I envied those other kids, or friends, who seemed to have “ideal families.”  Now that is probably an oxymoron.  I realize that now.  There is no real ideal family, even though some come close, except in books, fairy tales and some sitcoms, like “The Donna Reed Show,” and “Leave it to Beaver.”  Some children are lucky to have pretty nice environments; but even in their lives, there is sibling rivalry, and parental friction, and even divorce.  And perhaps alcoholism or sexual abuse.  Then, as I grew older, I began to see cracks in those very families I envied and I realized they weren’t so ideal after all.  Today, the more enlightened observers of life realize families are often more like “Modern Family.”  Continue reading

The Book of Constance: My Own Apocryphal Book of the Bible

I just saw a play written by Bill Cain titledHow to Write a New Book for the Bible.” The title sounds a bit like something I might have dreamed up.  I mean I wrote essays in which I took on the seven deadly sins and the ten commandments, so why not try to tackle something really big, like the Bible?  After all, the Mormons did something of the sort, and it was successful in launching a new religion.  Maybe mine could be a more modern version of sorts.  And hey, The Book of Mormon was made into a musical.  Maybe mine could be made into a mini series on HBO.

Now I don’t aspire to write a new holy book in its entirety, or to start a new religion.  But I have to say that this started me thinking.  If I were to undertake such a thing, how might I go about it, and what might I include?  Continue reading

Frankenfodder (or, Coming to Terms with My Crystal Ball)

I have to say I love modern technology – that is, when it works like it should.  It just amazes me how much things have changed since I was young.  I still remember telephone party lines, and phone numbers that were less than seven digits.  In our town, you still had to call the operator to make a long distance call in 1966.  And I remember slide rules, that I used for math, physics, and chemistry classes.  And old fashioned typewriters, correction fluid, carbon paper and mimeographed copies.  And 45 RPM records and 8 track tapes.  Well, I’ve certainly dated myself.

Once when I was young and was in love with movies, including watching old movies from the 1930s and 1940s when they were shown on TV, I used to fantasize about being rich and successful enough to have a large grand house with a separate room big enough to have theater seats and a projection room, so I could show movies in my home — when movies were on those big metal film reels. I would be able to invite friends over if I wanted, or watch a movie over and over any time I wished.  This was over 50 years ago, long before the concept of the modern home theater.  And now it is not even a real luxury.  It seems a lot of “just regular folks” can easily afford to have a home theater in a large common room, or a den, playroom or basement.  At least if Best Buy or HGTV is any indication — I see such rooms being designed or remodeled for that purpose often on various design shows.  Models of home theater set-ups are in design centers and big box stores in most malls.

And Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio, and Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone — we’re way past that now.  I remember when my mother was still alive in the early 1990s and she asked me what a FAX machine was.  And as I explained that it enabled a person to send copies of documents across a telephone line in just a few minutes, she looked at me with wondrous astonishment, like I had just told her that time travel had been perfected, or that trains were now going to the moon.  And now faxing is almost old technology.  You’ve probably heard that old story about the US Patent Office.  In 1899, so a certain legend goes, the head of the U.S. Patent Office sent his resignation to President McKinley urging the closing of the office because “everything that could be invented has been invented.”  Well it may be just a legend, not truth, but that was the thinking of the time by many back in those days. Continue reading

A What Kind of Museum?

“Well now, don’t that just beat the band!” I could hear my father’s voice uttering this midwesternism as I learned of a museum in Iceland, The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yes, it exhibits phalluses. This museum claims to be the “only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in a single country.”

That expression was one my father used when learning of something amazing, outrageous or ridiculous upon reading about it in a newspaper or magazine. A friend of mine had alerted me to an article in “Slate,” the online news publication, titled “The Penises of the Icelandic Handball Team.” It is about a sculpture exhibited at this museum, fifteen sculpted metal phalluses, of different lengths (heights), each leaning at a slightly different angle from the vertical, encased in a plexiglass case. It is positioned under a large photograph of the manly 2008 handball team. I guess my dad’s expression is about as good a rejoinder as any, other than “WTF?” Which, under the circumstances, would be an unintended pun.

Anyone who has read more than one of my essays knows I am not a prude. So I am not really grossed out. And I guess I shouldn’t be surprised either — well OK, I’m moderately surprised. The human race appears to have no end of “treats” in store for us. You have only to be moderately alert on any given day to learn something amazing. But, I have to admit, this is slightly more surprising than some things that have come to my attention recently. Continue reading

Why Religion?

It is with no small amount of hubris that I even consider writing about this topic.  After all, sages, scholars and saints through the ages have grappled with the issue, as have many armchair theologians, thinkers, seekers and skeptics.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about it lately after listening, recently, to a presentation by a theologian from a well-regarded theology school, and after seeing the dramatic adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, based on the novel by CS Lewis.  My writing on this topic is an attempt to clarify my own thoughts on the matter, not to impart scholarly wisdom.

I am currently reading a novel in which the main character, a 40ish, modern English woman, is at odds with her parents who are born-again Christians.  She is unwed and pregnant and her parents are appalled that the child will grow up without a father and without God.  She herself thinks “I shall tell it God is a made up fairy tale like Snow While, only nastier.”  This could be the opinion of many modern skeptics; in the face of more and more recent scientific discoveries, they have turned away from religion and God, feeling that this erstwhile explanation, this fiction is not relevant to them in today’s modern world.  Even many ministers, rabbis and priests are skeptical, yet they compassionately serve believers and SBNRs (spiritual but not religious) alike, while they mentally re-assess their own beliefs.  

So what purpose does religion serve in this time where more and more people around the globe are living “perfectly good” lives without it?  There might be as many answers as there are “church goers.”  A statistically valid survey would surely capture a wide range of responses, from “I’m just not sure” to “it’s a good way to meet people.”  I myself have landed (much like an alien being at first) in a congregation of liberal thinkers, a great many of whom are non-believers and skeptics.  Some call themselves seekers or questioners.  I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that presents in this group, where we discuss the works of Richard Dawkins, recent advances in stem cell research and DNA technology, the newly discovered “god particle,” space exploration, super novae, alongside popular fiction, art, travel, drama, photography, social justice issues, politics, Wicca, and the contributions of historians.  There is something for anyone who is intellectually curious, or at least more enlightened than a dirt clod.  I learn about people like Erwin Chemerinsky, Gustavo Arellano, Dr. Phillip Clayton, Richard Dawkins, Forrest Church, various scholars and writers, current and past.  I’m developing an interest in politics, though my perspectives are no doubt totally unique, and I don’t necessarily feel obligated to agree with anyone else.  My intellectual landscape has been widened substantially and my brain cells exercised — maybe this will help keep Alzheimer’s at bay.  My social life has expanded.  And yes, I’ve developed a spirituality that is wholly my own, and still morphing.  And yes, it has been worth getting up “early” on Sunday morning to be there by 10:00 a.m.  Continue reading

Further Thoughts on Useful Badgers and Big Yellow Taxis

One of the essays in my book Did Jesus have a Cat? is titled “A Useful Badger.”  In the essay I mention that one of my useful badgers was a professor at Cal State Long Beach, way back in the 60s, who planted the notion in my head of getting a Master’s degree in English.  I wasn’t sure if he was still alive, and if he would approve of my printing his name – after all, I didn’t have his permission.  [I think I mentioned his name on one of my blog posts, but not in the published book.]  And I recalled him as being a bit of a curmudgeon before his time and I didn’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest, to use a cliché.

But now, I want to say a few more things more about the whole notion of useful badgers.  This professor was Dr. George Betar, and I took several courses from him while I was at Cal State Long Beach, including graduate level courses while I was working on my Masters.  Many times over the years I thought about him, wondered what had happened to him – was he still alive, did he die early from poor health (he impressed me as being the type who didn’t take good care of his health)?  And while I was writing the essays that eventually found their way into the book, I wondered what he might think of my writing if he knew about the endeavor.  And then I thought about him again when the book was published.

About seven months or so after the book was published, I decided to try to track him down, or at least to see what I could learn from the internet, from some Googling and searching, since finding folks these days is much easier than in years past.  I remembered he had a son named Joseph (Joe) and I was able to find a Joe Betar in Utah who had a car business.  So I took a chance and sent Joe Betar an email, using an address I found on the dealership’s web site.  And he replied and said that yes, George Betar was his father and yes, he was still alive.  And he gave me an email address, though he wasn’t sure if it was up-to-date and still valid. Continue reading