Monday, December 30, 2013

Playing the Game

This is the time when people begin to make resolutions for what they will do, or, in some cases, what will happen to them, in the new year, the old one coming to an end and not a lot of things having happened that were predicted during last year's purgatory between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Of course, none of our resolutions and predictions come to pass because of our own doing (or lack thereof) and because the universe likes to screw with us.  (How do you make god laugh?  Make a plan.)   I tend to believe the latter, so I’ve decided to work the universe rather than be worked over by the fucker.  So here are my resolutions for 2014:

I will fail utterly in every endeavor. 

I will be penniless.

I will gain massive amounts of weight.

I will fall into an irretrievable depression.

I will have no free time and live all my waking hours in tedium.

I will not sleep much at all.

I will subsist on the basest of foods and drink only foul beverage. 

I will wade through an existential crisis that will challenge me to reexamine each of my cherished beliefs only to come through in more confusion than when I began.

My cholesterol will skyrocket.

There.  That ought to do it. 

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thoughts on Absolutes: or, Hooray for Split Infinitives!

The following was written earlier today while I waited for my car to get serviced.  This is what happens when I’m bored:

Today, while killing time like a sniper, I browsed the Brown Elephant on a quest to find cheap books.  Because I don’t own enough as it is.  One title caught my eye: Notes From a Cool Teacher by a guy named Edward Janusz.  From the look of the thing, and you can view it here, it’s self-published.  Now, there’s not so much shame in self-publishing these days, though the stigma remains, but I admit to a wee bit of suspicion when I see a book with a title like this published by who knows what press.  Nevertheless, I was willing to spend a buck on the thing.  And an hour, which is as long as it took me to read the poorly edited, slim volume.  (Eddie, buddy, did you really miss the error in your chapter titled "Don't Be To Grade-Oriented"?)

This is not to say that the book is a waste of time, but the overall message is kind of simple, perhaps intentionally so.  I’ll boil down in case you’re interested: be cool but don’t try to be cool.  Oh, there’s more, some of it quite helpful, but I was a bit put off by the author’s declaration that he does believe in absolutes.  To say that there are absolutes is just wrong.  Which suggests that there exists a right and a wrong.  Which suggests that Janusz is right to believe in absolutes, because I absolutely disagree with him. 

Once I mentioned to someone that I distrusted absolutes.  “Don’t ever believe in absolutes,” I said, trying to make a joke.  He didn’t get it.  The listener in question is a lawyer, so yeah… he lacks a fundamental understanding of irony.  He, of course, pointed out the contradiction, causing me to roll my eyes (metaphorically—I had a job to keep).   Another pearl lost to the swine.

I absolutely do not want to be here.  If ever there were a place where absolutes go to die, it’s the auto repair shop.  Mechanics often speak in vague terms.  They make predictions that don’t always stick.  Case in point: the estimate.  It is, by definition, abstract.  Sure, there’s a concrete nature to the thing, but by calling this breakdown of projected service an estimate the door is left wide open for adjustment to the price, almost always an increase. 

So, I see again a concrete example of an abstraction.  Thus, evidence of how the two (solid and fluid) can be happily married.  This informs my worldview: a constant negotiation of abstract and concrete realities. 

There is no real alternative: you must get your car serviced.   (Sure, you can ignore problems, but a very real concrete situation will develop.)  But the terms of the service are up for discussion.  Where else but in the garage can you find yourself presented with a bill ahead and after service, often with shifting figures?  Inherent to the transaction is a sense of predictability and the distinct feeling of being screwed.  There’s a lack of control that is pretty goddamn close to the feeling all of us, I suspect, have throughout our lives when we confront the uncertainty of it all. 

And what about that estimate?  The paper used in the estimate, while physically concrete, represents a guess.  Guesses are, by their nature, uncertain.  So, the only absolute in this situation is that you will have to pay.  How much?  There’s no absolute way of knowing until the repairs are done.  Even then, you’re not always absolutely sure that you haven’t been ripped off.

Let’s look at a different example: smoking cigarettes.

We have been told that smoking is among the worst activities that we can do, and that our bodies will deteriorate if we smoke on a regular basis.  Smoking has been linked to a host of terrible maladies, notable among them: cancer.  If you smoke, there’s a good chance that you have envisioned yourself in a hospital bed, tubes stuck into your lungs.  The fear remains, though we push it from our thoughts.  Still, it’s back there somewhere.  But we continue to smoke.  Why?  Why would we do something that we know is bad for our health? 

Well, because death is a bit of an abstraction.  Not really.  It will absolutely happen.  We will, all of us, die.  We don’t always know how or when, but we accept the absolute.  Still, our acceptance comes with a slight denial that something we are doing, like smoking, is going to be the absolute cause of our demise.  Smoking is bad, but not so much that it need affect our behavior. 

Sometimes we cite examples in order to further dismiss the absolute.  We say: “Oh. My grandfather smoked until he died, and he made it to 90!”  Anecdotal evidence is the best method of denying the absolute. 

But that’s just it: it is true, we don’t know for sure that smoking cigarettes will kill us.  There’s a chance—a damned good one— that smoking will lead to serious health problems, but it’s not an absolute.  Anything could happen.  We accept the possibility in one sense and reject it in another.  Both seem like normal methods of living life.  I mean, you can accept that cigarettes are absolutely going to kill you and chose not to smoke them, but in doing so you have not cheated death.  It’s coming.  Absolutely.  But maybe not because of your choices.  Ask Jim Fixx.

I can say that I absolutely miss smoking.