Friday, February 29, 2008

Planting seeds in a barren arctic mountain is a good idea?

I have a brand new reason to hope there is no catastrophic event of world-wide proportion. No global warming which results in Topeka’s real estate values tripling because they can now advertise beach front property. No tsunami creating a wave large enough for Gilligan to surf from his remote desert island all the way to Tokyo. (Wasn’t that a plot from the 1965 season?) No hijacking of the Electoral College resulting in the constitutionally valid installment of Chuck Norris as President of the United States. Nope, I need the world to keep plugging along just fine. Why?
Well, I read that a gigantic vault has been created inside a mountain near the city of Longyearbyen (I know it looks like I made that name up but I didn’t) on the remote Svalbard Islands between Norway and the North Pole. This vault was created and will be maintained as a safe repository for millions of different seeds. The very first shipment stored there contained over one million seeds. These seeds are all for plants used for food like eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potatoes. This all sounds well and good, doesn’t it? If there is a horrible occurrence like Donald Trump’s ego blots out the sun for an extended period of time dropping the world into an ice age even worse than the one starring Ray Romano and the food supply is truly depleted, this seed vault could be used. But think about it beyond the surface. This means the entire food supply for the planet would be vegetables.
One of the few perks to being a forty-five year old man is I no longer have to eat my vegetables. Oh, my wife keeps slipping them onto my plate in an effort to help me eat healthy. I eat a few of them while my children are watching so I can be a good role model (which despite one Globe Exchange contributor’s opinion is something I am cognizant of), but then I can hide the rest under the napkin and nobody is the wiser.
There have been bunches of movies made over the years showing the horrors of a post-apocalyptic civilization on Earth. The Planet of the Apes showed how horrible it would be if Charlton Hesston was the only human being capable of speech. There is an NRA joke there somewhere but I do not want to tick them off. (They have guns which have not yet been pried from their cold, dead fingers.) The Road Warrior showed Mel Gibson as the last good man in a world thirsty for gasoline. This was long before we saw him fight for the rights of 13th century Scotland or heard him go on an anti-Semitic drunken rant. Waterworld had Kevin Costner which in and of itself is darned frightening.
I have a new pitch for Hollywood using the Doomsday Seed Vault as the premise. The world has just come through a horrible event. The heroic Norwegians are making a valiant attempt to re-cultivate the Earth, but everyone is just sick to death of broccoli served with a side of artichoke hearts. Then suddenly into the land rides a stoic stranger. A man with no name, no past, and no spinach stuck in his teeth. He is a savior to the horribly healthy yet strangely unsatisfied population of the planet, for he brings with him a long forgotten secret. This secret will lead to a renaissance, a chance to re-gain some of the joy from the lost ante-apocalyptic days. He has the secret of high fructose corn syrup, the most powerful sweetener ever created by man. Who cares about the gigantic rise in obesity and possible liver damage? It tastes good and once again the world can have soda pop and Baby Ruths. It isn’t until the pivotal climax of the third act that we find out he also carries the answer to the centuries old question, “Just what is nougat?”
I hope there are other groups squirreling away different things, just in case. Might I suggest a vault containing Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and Bugs Bunny movies? If I have to deal with living in a post-apocalyptic world with Charlton Hesston, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner I am really gonna be aching for a laugh. Or a vault containing all the books I never had the time to read. I would be smarter than Burgess Meredith and I would be sure I had a couple extra pairs of glasses. (There are big bonus points available if you get that reference.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Apparently purposeless activity

Useless is always used as a pejorative term. You know what I mean. Your distant cousin, who never fails to show up at holiday gatherings and no one quite knows how he always finds out about them, is frequently described as “about as useful as mammary glands on a wild porcine mammal of the male gender” or words to that effect. I would like to go on record saying that “useless” needs to be reevaluated.
To tell the truth I think we live in a world that leans too heavily on the utilitarian side of things. Utilitarians believe the value of anything is directly related to its usefulness. If this is the case then it makes total sense for the Pentagon to pay $6,325 for a wrench, but when the Japanese rich guy paid over $39,000,000 for Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, he got taken for the proverbial ride. Think about it. If the lives of hundreds of troops on a McDonnell Douglas C-9 depend on the bolts holding the wings in place do you want the mechanic to have a well-forged crescent wrench made from the finest American steel in his back pocket or a hundred and twenty year old oil painting created by a horribly depressed Dutchman?
Okay, that was a really crummy example. Especially since, I would like more people to look at things which do not have a means to an end utility as valuable. I’m not talking about truly useless things like Heinz 57 at a Vegan convention, Oscar ballots at a screening of anything starring Vin Diesel, or Mensa applications being passed around the infield gallery at the Daytona 500. I’m talking about things which will not, in and of themselves, accomplish tasks.
My brother, Eric, discussed this recently in a blog he writes. Now, my brother has read more books than the average B. Dalton has on their shelves and he understands things which when I try to wrap my mind around them it causes a brain hurtie worse than when I consume a DQ chocolate extreme blizzard in less than a minute, so I may have misunderstood some things, but I think we agree.
Here is a quote from what he wrote: “The value of anything is determined purely by its use towards an end. This devalues things that we would like to be ends in themselves, like people, animals and natural habitats.”
The same day I read his statement I came across an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine which was trying to explain the useful brain science and evolutionarily beneficial aspects of playing. No, not playing the harpsichord, not playing Hamlet, not playing third base for the Yankees, just playing. Playing, as in Ken and Barbie get tossed into the clay pits of doom (a.k.a sandbox) and are saved at the last minute by G.I. Joe and his battalion little green army men. Playing, as in seeing if you can throw a ball all the way over the garage, have it bounce off the hood of the station wagon and then carom into the plastic wading pool splashing water all over your sunbathing big sister. That kind of playing.
Scientists spending time and money trying to prove that play is beneficial to the brain development of children is good if that is the only way the powers that be will care about allowing kids to play. I would prefer a world that looks at play as good, because it causes smiling, giggling, and the occasional hearty guffaw. There are many things that should be valued for what they give rather than what they accomplish and the government should be more open to it.
I work in education so No Child Left Behind has huge impact on my daily life. Naming it as they have it makes it hard for people to attack it, because if you do, it appears you want to leave some kids behind. My problem with it is it values tools over entire human beings. I have a fear the capitalist society we live in wishes schools to create new and improved employees. This means people are valued more for what they will do (money they will make and tasks they will accomplish, for example Donald Trump) as opposed to what they are (caring individuals who can enjoy a song or a book for the sake of its artistry, for example…for example…oh, boy, I can’t think of anyone who is famous for being a caring individual who can enjoy a book or a song for the sake of its artistry).

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Philosophical Giant: Elwood P. Dowd

What is valuable these days? I’m not talking about monetary value. No one should listen to me about fiscal things. I drive an eighteen-year-old Ford Escort. This does not indicate someone with a lot of money, nor does it indicate someone with a whole lot of awareness of what driving an eighteen-year-old Ford Escort is telling everyone around him. Could it be…loser!?
Anyway, I often think what I value is becoming less and less valued by the majority of people walking around on this planet. I harken back (and we all know how difficult it is to harken nowadays) and I’m reminded of the great line from the play and movie about a six foot tall invisible white rabbit, Harvey. The main character is a splendidly happy man. Many people think his bucket of chicken is missing a leg and a thigh, the wick is lit but there isn’t any kerosene, the wheel is turning but the hamster is vacationing in Boca, but others think he may be the only sane one around. He has a line which states what I believe is a very enlightened philosophy: In this world, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.
Before I go any further, let me say I do not wish to denigrate being smart. I am an educator, so smart is very important to me. Intellect is one of the things I fear is being less valued in the general culture. Thirty years ago one of the biggest film comedians was Woody Allen. In one of his movies he said the following: Nietzsche with his Theory of Eternal Recurrence. He said that the life we live, we’re gonna live over and over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It’s not worth it. Today one of the biggest film comedians is Will Ferrell who says things like: let me quote the late great Colonel Sanders, he said, “I’m too drunk to taste this chicken.” The intellectual scales have to tip substantially in Mr. Allen’s favor.
I’m concerned the United States may have fallen more deeply into the Chasm of Dumbness than many places. In England there is a popular televison show called Q.I. It is set up something like a game show where four contestants are asked arcane questions about a myriad of subjects and they are given points based on accuracy and also on how many interesting bits of information they can add to the conversation. In the United States our popular game show has a raft of pretty girls in short skirts holding suitcases full of money. You be the judge.
Back to Elwood’s theory. Even though I do value smart and I hope to continue to increase the knowledge and skills requisite to be a well-rounded human being, I think being pleasant is quite valuable. I am not talking about a person who is so saccharin sweet Pollyanna-esque that you want to run into the path of an uncoming cement truck to avoid prolonging your exposure to him or her. You know the kind I mean. The person who actually believes life gives people lemons for the sake of making lemonade. Realists know life gives you packets of powder comprised of various chemicals and additives which when added to water resembles lemon color and flavor for the sake of making lemonade.
The “pleasant” I am referring to has more to do with caring about manners and decorum as opposed to selfishness and meanness. Here is why I think it trumps smart. If a person is bloody brilliant. As examples, he knows the entire contents of the encyclopedia Britannica, can whistle the collected works of Bach, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Marvin Hamlisch, can recite Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pushkin, and Stephen King, and can even rebuild the engine of a 1966 Corvair. If this same guy uses his voluminous knowledge of Hieronymus Bosch’s imagery of Hell to describe your mother, he is not someone you want to be around.
On the other hand let’s look at a person who has the I.Q. of a ball peen hammer. I mean this guy has difficulty pouring water out of a boot, even if the instructions are written on the heel, gets stuck between floors when an escalator suddenly stops working, believes knock-knock jokes are just too complex, and thinks the pinnacle of literary achievement involves characters named Veronica and Jughead. However, if he genuinely worries about you and brings you cheesecake when you are depressed, he is worthy of friendship.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Humility nation, not humiliation

It was not my intent to disappoint individuals throughout the country, but I believe I have done so. My brother showed me a way to attach an on-line doohickey to my blog. (I find it amusing that spell check recognizes doohickey but not blog.) This doohickey shows me a little information about the folks visiting the site. It tells me what town they are from and if they used Google to get to me it even tells me what the visitor typed into the search box. This is where the disappointment comes into play.
Awhile back I wrote a column in which I pointed out how terribly out of touch, as well as past the point of ogling swimsuit models, I am. In the column I mentioned Cheryl Tiegs in that white mesh swimsuit she wore in Sports Illustrated some thirty years ago. Well, because of that mention, if a middle-aged man is trying to recapture some of the libidinous fire of his youth, while the wife is busy watching Ugly Betty, and sneaks onto the internet, typing Cheryl+Tiegs+white+mesh+swimsuit into the computer gets him a list of websites, including mine. This has to be a monumental let down like ordering a banana split and getting asparagus on a bed of fresh spinach because they are out of ice cream.
To those individuals (in particular the guys from Renton, WA, Fennville, MI, and Newbury Park, CA) I need to point something out. When you go to Google there are words in the upper left to help you. If you point and click on the word “images” you might find your search for Ms. Tiegs more (ahem) fruitful.
Why am I worried about disappointing people I will never meet, especially people who are spending their free time searching for racy photographs from 1978? I don’t know. I suppose it could revolve around the fact that I have the self-esteem of plankton.
A buddy of mine is constantly on me about my predilection for self-effacing statements. Maybe it’s because I’m such a total loser. Oops, there I go again. Actually, I know I’m not a loser, but I do have buckets of humidity…sorry, that should be humility. If I had buckets of humidity I’d be living in Quillayute, Washington, the most humid city in the United States according to the Weather Research Center in Houston, Texas. Knowing the town with the highest average humidity has to point out just how useless much of the information in my cranium truly is. (I think that may be another self-denigrating statement.) I do not know which city in the nation has the most humility, but I am willing to venture it is not Washington, D.C.
Truth be told, being so empty of myself (That is the opposite of full of myself, isn’t it?) has held me in good stead for most of my life. People are more likely to help if they feel it will be appreciated, but more importantly, people will be more likely to help if they feel you need their help. People who know everything, or at least advertise they know everything, do not invite altruistic feelings in others.
This works best with women. No, I’m not talking about some silly “How to Date Swim Suit Models Even if you Make That Kramer Guy from Seinfeld look like Brad Pitt” hint from Hugh Hefner or Austin Powers. Many women are hardwired with a maternal instinct, not just for children, but for inept men as well. You should not be a blithering idiot, that doesn’t elicit nurturing actions that elicits a rap in the mouth.
My theory stating the concept that a highly modest person can be effective is echoed by someone with much higher status than I possess. Jim Collins is the author of “Good to Great”. His book was originally published almost seven years ago and it has proven its staying power because it currently ranks thirty-first on the bestseller list. He says a level five leader (five is as high as he goes) is not a larger than life person. A level five leader is “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy.” Aha! I rest my case. He points out a great leader says “we” not “I”. The old cliché holds true. There is no “i” in team. Has anyone else noticed there is no “i” but there is an “m” and an “e” which spells me?
So I will stick to my modest ways. I will downplay my strengths and admit my shortcomings and if Mr. Collins is right I will one day rule the world!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Sunday Dinner Gone Wrong

The warm weather this past weekend made a lot of people happy. The winter doldrums can set in this time of year. Christmas is over. Spring can seem so very far away. We have had several really cold days and the ice and snow took forever to melt. So when the temperature was downright balmy many folks probably went for bike rides, long walks, fathers and sons tossed the ol’ pigskin in the backyard making for dozens of Norman Rockwell-esque scenes around our hometown.
The Pyle family did not act out one of those scenes. We opened every window in the house and went to a burger joint. Why would we do that you ask. Well, basically, because I’m an idiot.
Let’s go back to Sunday morning. My wife and the kids are going to go to church. I am going to go to work and do things I never seem to be able to accomplish during the week. Claudia (my wife, for people new to this column) says to me, “I’m going to turn the pork roast up to medium. Can you turn it down to low before you go to work?” I pause to consider. This requires absolutely no culinary talent and very little thought, so I respond I will be able to do that.
Several minutes go by and I have completely forgotten about my assignment. Luckily there is a waft of delicious smell that gets my attention as I am packing my bag with the work I need to do. The smell of lunch cooking is a much better communication device than texting or e-mailing when it comes to getting a message to a forty-five year old man. The stomach rumble reminded me I was to turn the roast down.
I went into the kitchen walked directly over to the roaster which was sitting on the counter not far from the sink. The dial was set so it was pointing a little past the middle. To me that seemed to indicate medium. I then turned the dial so it pointed to the left and little down. To me that indicated low. I then congratulated myself on a job well done, grabbed my car keys and left for work.
Well, fair reader you may think everything sounds hunky dory so far. Why are you an idiot? My olfactory sense may have helped me remember the task, but my other senses failed me. I did not use my sense of touch to become aware the roaster was room temperature. I did not use my sense of sight to see the roaster was not plugged in to the electrical socket. I did not use my sense of hearing to pick up the slight bubbling sound coming from the pot on the stove which truly contained the Sunday dinner Pyle family pork roast, which was still furiously cooking away on a burner set to medium heat as I blithely drove many blocks away to be a good employee.
Flash forward with me now about two hours. I have turned the corner and I am driving down the block towards my home. I see the silver minivan (also known as the signature for married with children, a mortgage, credit card debt, and no chance whatsoever of jetting to Monaco for a diverting weekend at the roulette table) parked in the driveway. The family is home so we can have a pleasant lunch together. Then I see daughter number 2 opening the windows to the living room. My thought is the warm weather is being taken advantage of and we are going to enjoy the fresh air in the house. Then I see my wife is opening the window next to the kitchen sink. My thought is we don’t usually open that window, hmmm? Then I park my car, step out onto the driveway and the smell hits me.
I jog up the front steps and even before I get to the door I am calling to anyone in the house, “I turned it down.” Then I look into the kitchen and see the smoking, blackened pot on the stove and the reality of it all sinks in.
Earlier I referenced all the different Norman Rockwell images depicting the touching moments of family togetherness and said we resembled none of them. That is because I do not remember a single Rockwell work titled “Mercilessly Making Fun of Father.”
Several days have passed now. The charcoal briquettes, formerly known as potatoes, have been thrown in the dumpster. The pork roast, which had spot welded to the pot, has been disposed of. The smell has almost left the house. But Dad is still the rump roast of the jokes.