A Guide To A Good Life, Thoughts

Coming to terms with the complexity of life and the fear of death

I thought I’d write a lighthearted, cheery post, sort of a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year ahead, so naturally, I wrote (and made a video) about how complicated life is and how we’re all afraid of dying, but we shouldn’t be, because zombies and vampires… Wait, what?!

“We trouble our life by thoughts about death, and our death by thoughts about life.” ― Michel de Montaigne

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much… The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” ― Seneca

“You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly, like a good man or a bad one.” ― Plato

Here’s (more or less) what I talked about in the video.

Whatever your beliefs about life after death, one thing is for certain: this life you’re living now will end within the span of a few decades. That’s pretty short and it’s no wonder we have a hard time dealing with that notion.

I’d like to submit to you that one way we grapple with death is through the introduction of death-less characters into popular culture. Nowadays, those characters are vampires and zombies. We call both of them undead and we’ve made up all sorts of fiction to explain their existence and ways they survive this event that scares us so much. And yet, neither character is something we’d choose rationally, if we were faced with that choice. Both vampires and zombies must continually kill in order to survive and in that sense, they’re terribly selfish: they sacrifice the lives of many innocent others in order to preserve themselves. In escaping death, they force it upon others. And zombies, those putrescent, barely alive corpses, are never first on anyone’s list of ways to prolong existence.

Both these characters though, are ways in which we’re not only dealing with the question of death, but with the question of life. Both offer simplified ways to view and treat an existence which many of us find to be complicated and stressful. Zombies are the perfect example. Instead of dealing with life’s mind-numbing complexity and options, upon becoming a zombie, you have only one option: eat brains. That’s it. No more jobs, bills, taxes, children, etc. Vampires are a bit more complicated and I think that is because they were invented earlier, in the 19th century, whereas zombies, as a manifestation of popular culture, only appeared midway through the 20th century. The more complicated real life will be, the more simplistic the escapism tends to be.

If we’re to stack these deathless characters by level of complexity against others invented throughout history, we find them on the lower rungs of life. If we step back in time, we find that people invented many deathless gods, most of which led far more interesting and complex lives than the humans who believed in them. But as life started to move faster and became more complex and harder to deal with, as we experienced world wars that terrified and scarred entire continents, we began to look for simpler characters and the unfortunate “best” we came up with were blood-sucking parasites that slept in coffins and blabbering, putrid corpses that dragged their rancid meat through cities and the countryside looking for brains. It’s quite sad really, to see where we’ve arrived.

I for one miss the more lofty deathless characters of old, gods who lived interesting, full lives, were articulate, powerful, higher and better than man (though sometimes just as petty and vindictive) and gave us something to look up to. Now we’ve got coffin-sleepers and tomb-climbers… It makes for good escapism through books, TV shows and movies but it does not make for a good alternative to death, nor does it ultimately help us deal with the complexity of life. Instead, we end up terrifying ourselves even more with the various “end of days” scenarios that are fed to us when we watch or read about these characters.

There’s no easy solution to this. Life is only getting faster and more complex. At least it seems that way, because we haven’t yet learned to filter all that is coming our way, and we haven’t learned to only deal with things that are of immediate concern to us. That’s what people did 100 years or more before our time. They didn’t have access to all that we have now. We should do the same. Just because we can have access to something, it doesn’t mean we should introduce it into our lives. We need to turn off the TV more often, put our phones away and spend more time with our selves, getting to know who we are, developing the skills that we deem valuable, exploring nature, sitting in silence. This won’t take us all the way, but it’ll put us in a much better place so we can deal with life. As long as we continue to be terrified by its complexity and by its quickly-approaching end, we’ll continue to look for quick fixes that are sorely inadequate and unrealistic, grotesque versions of ourselves that end up inflicting yet more of the pain and suffering that’s been scaring us but (in theory) take us out of the routine of daily living and offer us a simpler way to see our existence.

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Thoughts

Meet Rita and say goodbye to Fritz

First, the bad news. It turned out that Fritz was indeed from Brazil. Only it wasn’t Brazil, the country, but the mythical place from the movie Brazil, where things are all screwed up. Only a bunny from “Brazil” could survive a trip in a hot car engine on a disgustingly hot day and die from an unknown malady a couple of weeks later. One day he was fine, prancing about in the yard, eating whatever he wanted, happily, and the next he was lying on the ground, unable to move, barely able to react. We took him to the vet, who didn’t know what was going on with him, said it could be a number of things, gave him a couple of injections and pill, gave us more pills to give him, and we took him home. The next day, he was a little better, and the next morning, he was stiff as a door knob.

Goodbye, little grey fur ball, we will miss you dearly.

We shouldn’t get so attached to pets, they all die in the end, some sooner than they should…

Now for the good news. We still have Rita. I mentioned her before. She’s a white bunny with a grey nose whom we got as a companion for Fritz. They got along well together while he was still around. Now it’s only her, and she doesn’t seem to mind so much. She goes about her business, munching whatever she likes from the yard and garden, mostly grass, weeds and unfortunately, flowers. And she loves to poop little rabbit bonbons. She walks and poops, walks and poops… She even has a few favorite spots where she does her little dirty business, full of rabbit bonbons. Here are a few photos of her.

Let’s hope she sticks around in this world for a bit more time than Fritz…

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Thoughts

Follow the PCB and Mercury trail in our oceans

Marine biologist Stephen Palumbi gave a talk at TED about the massive problem with pollutants in our oceans, and the disease and death this causes everywhere in the world, throughout the food chain, including us.

Keep in mind what he says, then read this article, where the problem of toxins found in whales is shown in grim detail. Quoting from the article:

“The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million.”

“Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people. ‘You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on,’ he said.”

“‘The biggest surprise was chromium,’ Payne said. ‘That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.'”

“He said another surprise was the high concentrations of aluminum, which is used in packaging, cooking pots and water treatment. Its effects are unknown. The consequences of the metals could be horrific for both whale and man, he said.”

“‘I don’t see any future for whale species except extinction,’ Payne said. ‘This is not on anybody’s radar, no government’s radar anywhere, and I think it should be.'”

Guess who is the largest manufacturer of PCBs in the world? Monsanto.

Is the US government doing anything about this? No. They’re too busy blocking the press from seeing and reporting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The little deaf tomcat

Updated 10/22/10: You can see better photos of Felix here.

In the summer of 2006, we visited family in Romania, and we met this wonderful white tomcat at my mother-in-law’s place in Tulcea, Romania. He was still a kitten, a growing boy, scruffy, dirty, and completely adorable. He was also deaf as a post, the poor thing.

Having been born pure white with blue eyes, that doomed him to a life of silence. He couldn’t hear a thing. Thankfully he’d feel the vibration of the ground as you approached him and turned around, but you couldn’t count on that, so you’d often have to touch him to get his attention and watch your step around him. The price for those eyes was heavy, sure, but get a load of those sparkling sapphires!

My wife and I fell in love with him immediately and thought seriously about adopting him, but there was an overseas trip to think about, and a visit to the US Embassy in Bucharest to arrange for his passage. Then he’d have had to live in an apartment, albeit a nice one, but still, he wouldn’t be outside, in nature. And we’d have had to hide him from the building administration, since pets were no longer allowed in our building. After a lot of consideration, we decided to leave him where he was, and hope for the best.

I still regret that decision. The next year, we found out he’d been run over by a car, right outside the yard. He climbed over the fence, and since he was deaf, didn’t hear it, and splat, his light was put out. At least it was quick, but it didn’t have to be that way. He’d still be alive today if we’d adopted him, condo rules and customs rules be damned. He’d be three years old now, a happy, content, white tomcat.

I also regret not taking better photos of him. The ones that I have are of barely adequate quality. The framing isn’t right, the lighting is poor, I’m not showing him from the best angles, etc. At least I have him on video in all his scruffy glory, playing with my camera strap and playing with a puppy whose photo you can see here.

You can watch the video below or on blip.tv and YouTube. You’ll notice the play between him and the pup gets pretty rough at times; don’t blame me for not stopping it. He could have run away, but he stood his ground and drove the puppy away in the end. That’s one brave little tomcat! Gosh, I miss the little white fluffball!

Although he couldn’t hear and respond to a name, I called him Felix, and this year, when we adopted a little black and white tomcat rejected by his mother, I named it Felix as well, to honor his memory.

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A mummified rat

In the process of replacing our roof tiles, I found a mummified rat. It’s stiff, fairly well preserved, and it’s the second one I found (I threw away the first one out of disgust). It’s probably the combination of the warm and dry air in the attic that kept it like this. I don’t know how old it is. It could be only several years old, or it could be hundreds of years old. (Our house is over 200 years old.) It looks like it’s going to hold together for another several decades, if not more. You may not want to look at the photos if you’re easily disgusted.

mummified-rat-skeleton-1

mummified-rat-skeleton-2

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