Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
But Doctor Octopus has never been a cool Spider-Man villain. He doesn’t have the edge of Venom, or the mania of Green Goblin. He just has those arms. And those glasses. And that gut.
Which is why my favorite rendition of Otto Octavius was Erik Larsen’s in the early 1990s.
Octopus was the scientist whose mechanical arms were grafted to his body in an experiment gone wrong (naturally), driving him to a life of crime. Probably Spider-Man’s most intelligent foe, Dr. Octopus was the schemer. He was also a good organizer, drafting the Sinister Six into existence.
Until Larsen’s run, and especially in the early Spider-Man issues. Larsen portrays Otto with a snazzy double-breasted white suit and black shirt. The glasses stay, as does the bowl cut, but the simple addition of the suit does wonders.
Erik Larsen was my canonical Spider-Man. His rendition of Black Cat, his work on Savage Dragon, his return to Amazing Spider-Man, the weird way he draws…did I mention I got to meet him once? In Chicago?
During Larsen’s reign, Doc Ock was stylish without being handsome, exactly. He looked like a professional villain. With self respect. He’s all business.
Which is why the above panel is probably my favorite super villain quote ever. Strictly business, that’s what that is.
“You’re going to die Spider-Man. I’m going to kill you.”
Since then, Doc Ock has taken on many forms and appearances (Ock’s new career as Spider-Man is both weird and hilarious), but Larsen’s will always stand out as, at the least, the most dignified.
When I tell people about my on-again, off-again meditation practice, I share a National Geographic story about the science of the mind. In the article, neuroscientists wire up Buddhist monks:
For the past several years Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been studying brain activity in Tibetan monks, both in meditative and non-meditative states…When Davidson ran the experiment on a senior Tibetan lama skilled in meditation, the lama’s baseline of activity proved to be much farther to the left of anyone previously tested. Judging from this one study, at least, he was quantifiably the happiest man in the world.
That last sentence had a big impact on me. Here was a kind of proof that meditation rewires the brain – in a good way. In a measurable way.
So I tried it. And when I did, I started giggling.
It was January 2006 when I first tried meditation. I downloaded a podcast, sat in an uncomfortable, half-hearted lotus position, closed my eyes, and listed to the instructor. Then, laughter. Uncontrollable, tear-inducing laughter.
After that first time, I didn’t laugh anymore. But boy, what at first impression.
Then it happened again when I tried a chakra meditation, concentrating on specific centers of the body. There again, right when I started to focus on the heart and throat chakra, I started giggling like a fool.
Today it happened a third time. This time, it was thanks to a simple message on a simple website playing a simple song (courtesy of Ben Brooks). The music started, my shoulders slumped in relaxation, and – what do you know? – I started laughing uncontrolably.
For me, I think there’s a bit of self-hypnosis involved. It’s almost like there’s some magic affecting my susceptible brain, and what I feel is the release of tension. Not being used to that feeling, I start laughing. It turns out it doesn’t even take meditation to kick start my giggle reflex. It could be something as simple as soothing music.
This is all evidence in support of what I read years ago in that National Geographic article – that meditation, or a relaxed state, changes the chemistry of the brain. What I feel, as a result, is a release of tension. And that feels funny.
So it’s with great pleasure that, after digging the spot out my galas with my fingernail, I can put that discolored depression to good use. Into my coffee can it goes, collecting with other vegetable matter, coffee grounds, and crushed egg shells. From there, it goes into my compost pile.
The whole concept of compost fascinates me. But maybe I said that already.
Anyway, now that the garden is finishing up, it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned since March – and since my first garden project last year.
First, though, let me say that it’s a helluva joy to eat stuff you’ve grown with your own two hands – especially when it’s drop-dead delicious. That yellow tomato? Life-changing. The green beans that never stop coming? Tender and flavorful. I was a veggie fan before, but now? Died-in-the-wool, man.
Maybe you’ve heard, but there’s a lot of work involved in gardening. Milkweed plants were a problem. They would sprout up without fail in the middle of the spinach or bush beans. It’s not a pretty plant. When I would pull it at its base, the whole thing would come up easily.
Mosquitos were also a problem. Back in the garden area, the mosquitos were everywhere – especially when I would work out there, near dusk. I would head out to the garden with my gloves and bucket, start picking veggies, and be swarmed. Absolutely swarmed.
There were always weeds to be picked. Grass to tear out. Now, because I’m only out there once a week (if that), the weeds are taking over. Clover and milkweed and random grasses – they’re stealing the sun from the planted-on-purpose vegetables. Eventually they’ll take over, and once again the area will need to be cleared. Next spring, perhaps. It’ll become a perennial tradition.
In the meantime, the beans and tomatoes keep coming. They’re crowding each other’s territory now: the tomatoes are greedy with their sunshine, and shoot stalk into the zucchini plant’s territory.
Soil and sun and water join forces to make delicious. It’s an easy formula, even when you question if it’s going to work out. You plant the seeds and you wait. And you wait some more. And then some green appears, and you’re kind of worried because you don’t know how it’s going to do. It does just fine, thanks, and in a few months you see some produce. The green tomatoes stay green longer than you’d like, and the squash never really comes at all.
“Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube,” Hunter S. Thompson once said, and it’s true in the case of gardening. Gardening is, at its heart, a Zen practice: deep breaths, slumped shoulders, and just a little bit of slack-jawed senselessness. You want the damn things to be done already, but Nature says, “Hold on. Be patient.”
What choice do you have? Squeezed out of a tube it is.
Here’s the part where I rap lyrically about the Earth and the soil, and how deep and powerful it is. The truth is, the dirt is vitally important to the vegetables, and not at all to me. I deal well with plants, not with dirt. Sweaty is better than dirty, always. Except for a short period of time when I was toddler and ate mud, getting dirty has never been my idea of fun. I love to work and to put forth effort, to get drenched in sweat and have my hands raw with effort. But I don’t like to get dirty. I leave that to the plants.
But those tomatoes? They make the whole thing worth it. Every bite is a reminder of those weeks and months of work. The little seeds that started as sprouts and then became bushy food factories. Now I have more tomatoes than I know what to do with. So I bring them to work, and others enjoy them.
Step by step, food is born. It’s a beautiful thing. Delicious, too, not only in flavor but in appreciation.
Grow old enough, and everything becomes a habit. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you’re too old to learn something new, you’ve been there and done that – we have sayings that point to life as a long-term habit. We get in the habit of breathing, and that’s the best we can ask for.
Routine, habit – do something enough times and it becomes like muscle memory. Toss a football every day and it becomes natural. So does riding a bike. Or using keyboard shortcuts. We don’t have to re-learn how to take a shower or drive a car. It’s all routine.
Those routines can become harmful, too: smoking, bad relationships, never trying something new. Sometimes habits become comfortable (or, worse, mindless) and get us in trouble.
I’ve thought a lot about habits lately because, at least in the past few months, I’ve broken so many of them. And not just little ones, like biting fingernails, but big ones, like driving a different way to a different job every morning.
When I lived in an apartment, I had the same morning routine: get up, eat breakfast, start the coffee, take a shower, get dressed, come downstairs and drink the coffee, then head to work. Now all that takes place in a different house, and the change in location has forced me outside of the normal routine. Now, I have to think, “Where are my shoes?” And, “Did I remember to make the coffee?” Nothing is automatic anymore because I’m learning a new routine.
That’s extremely stressful for me. There came a time, early last week, where the stress caught up with me and I came down with a light head cold. Part of me thinks my body gravitates toward routine and habit so much that when I’m forced to think about my routine, my wiring goes berserk.
But given enough time, everything becomes a habit. That initial stress never lasts long, because eventually the brain figures out a new groove and settles into it. It might take some time.
What I’ve learned is that even though it’s difficult to wiggle my way out of that groove, it’s far better to suffer a bit of discomfort and unease than plant myself in some habit and become complacent. This gets me in trouble especially in relationships. And after eight years of working at the same place, I noticed that my work grooves were becoming too deep for comfort, too.
The Fear caught up with me when I bought this new house. There were a few times where the little tickle in the back of my brain sparked some stress-induced thought, like “Why the hell did I do this? This won’t turn out well.” Really, that thought came from living in the same apartment for six years. The routine was so comforting that, even though the new house is a fantastic life change, my brain had a hard time letting go of the groove.
I was scared to switch jobs. I was scared to buy a house. I was scared to break up with my girlfriend last summer, because life with somebody seemed better than life all alone. Scared, scared, scared. And it all had to do with habits. With settling into that damned groove.
That’s not to say that The Fear doesn’t creep in now and again. I still wonder what the hell I’m doing. Don’t we all?
But as Merlin says in that talk (and a lot in his fantastic podcast): what’s the worst that could happen when you break your habits? When you try something new? When you shake things up and learn and grow as a civilized person? No one’s going to eat you.
The fact is, taking a new way to work now leads me to a better job in an environment I love. Yes, I live a bit farther out of town now and have to spend a bit more in gas, but I own a frackin’ house that I can do whatever I want with.
Eventually my habits (and probably yours) will become so ingrained that I’ll be that old guy who won’t learn new tricks, forgets to make his bed, and is still a jerk on Facebook. Maybe not. The point is, now is not the time to be settling into any well-worn grooves. No, it’s time to be brave, drink a beer, and get out there and try something new. The Universe doesn’t care if you’re scared.
It’s been an incredibly stressful month or two for me. I’ve had so much to think about, and so many little decisions to make. But that’s being an adult, right? And while life is a little harder than I’d like right now, soon – I feel it, because I’m getting old enough now where I have some wisdom and life experience to back it up – it’s going to be way great to be alive.
So maybe the good habit is not being afraid to break the bad ones.
The other day my dad was talking about his cellphone, and how it liked it so much because it was simple. Flip open, find the number you want, dial and talk, and then to hang up you simply close the clam shell.
Smartphones? They’re beyond him. Why do you need all that fancy stuff when you just want to make a phone call?
I almost chalked our conversation up to one of those aren’t-parents-cute moments, but then I thought, gosh, I recently felt the exact same way.
All I wanted was a radio. Nothing fancy, no media-playing capabilities. Just something that turns on, plays a radio station, and that’s it. And I wanted it to be portable enough to carry around the house with me: in the garage, in the kitchen, or in the kitchen window so I can hear it in the backyard.
At a local rummage sale, I found exactly what I was looking for. But to find it, I had to buy something that’s probably close to the same age as me. It’s the above General Electric desktop radio, model 7-4115B. Faux wood grain, black and metal finish, and two knobs – one for volume, and one for tuning. Then there’s a little switch that you flip to go from AM to FM.
It’s gorgeous, and it’s perfect, and it only cost me $1 at the rummage sale (some yahoo at Etsy has one for $18). That little radio was exactly what I was looking for, and it works like a charm. Plus, it’s stylish in a retro kind of way. That little radio fits perfectly with my kitchen. It’s sturdy enough, and if I drop and break it, I’m only out $1. But it’s the kind of thing where I can see having it for years and years. The thing has survived this long, after all – but maybe the reason it’s lasted so long is because it’s so simple.
When I’m doing repetitive tasks, I need something in the background to listen to. Put the radio on, and I’m up for anything. But if it’s not on, it’s easy to get distracted. Turning my brain off means having music, and so this new GE radio is going to be perfect.
Sometimes, fancy is great. Having the Internet on my phone is wonderfully handy, and goodness knows I get plenty of use out of my iPhone.
But then simple can be all you need just when you need it. My dad just wants a phone to make calls. I just want a little radio to carry around the house with me. Easy. Simple. Perfect.
Perhaps it was just my childhood fascination with all things printed and ephemeral, but I do feel a definite disconnect now between myself and my –all digital– music collection. I personally like the idea of a physical object to represents an otherwise unsee-able art form.
I’ve mentioned this before, many times: I prefer buying my music on clunky old CDs because (a) I like having a physical backup and (b) it feels better holding music in my hands. That may be an outdated philosophy, now that all the kids are getting their music on Amazon MP3 and iTunes, but it’s especially true in instances like photography.
For instance, I don’t want some boorish electronic photo frame, cycling through pictures at my new house. Photos capture moments, and should stand as artifacts of the time and place.
Thing is, it’s been years since I’ve printed photos for display. Flickr and Facebook are the new digital photo albums.
But now I have photo frames to fill, and fill them I will.
Which side are we on? We’re on the side of the demons, Chief. We’re evil men in the gardens of paradise, sent by the forces of death to spread devastation and destruction wherever we go. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.
Science fiction is the rare genre that gets to explore the big issues of our time – torture, suicide, dictatorships, infidelity – without seeming to copy the headlines of the day. It explores the touchy with the fantastic, and lets us think about what could happen as well as what is happening.
This is only one of the reasons I’m in love with Battlestar: Galactica, the four-season series on the SciFi channel. Some of the other reasons include a deep affection for the characters, an appreciation for the big decisions that take place, and the gripping story. You know – silly stuff.
The story? Tell me if you’ve heard this before: humans created androids, who gained self-awareness and overthrew their human masters. A war broke out between cylons (the androids) and humans, and then the war reached a cease-fire that lasted decades. With the new series, the cylons have returned, they’ve eradicated all but the 50,000 or so humans who escaped, and they can take human form. In Battlestar: Galactica, the humans are on the run from their cylon pursuers, trying to find Earth and restart civilization – all while getting mixed up in messy human things like politics, labor and resource shortages, and self-inflicted violence.
It’s utterly fascinating. In a way, I’m glad the series only lasted four seasons, because I’d be watching it to this day if the show were still on TV.
But thanks to Netflix, all four seasons are available, and I’ve been absorbing the episodes since Christmas. It’s one of those take-a-chance things, where I’ve heard so many good things about the show that I dove in and got hooked.
Now I’ve started the final season, where things are getting tense and a little goofy. But watching a television series like this, where it’s more like a long-form movie, gets you invested in the characters and their stories. You have Adm. Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, who plays the perfect not-so-perfect military leader; Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, the hot-shot pilot who makes her own rules; Lee Adama, the admiral’s rebelious son; Gaius Baltar, the egotistical, womanizing genius; and – dear lord – Number Six, the gorgeous cylon with the perfect mouth who falls in love with Baltar.
The ship, the Battlestar, is almost a character in itself. Here it’s this obsolete ship from the first cylon/human war that is humankind’s only defense against the horde of cylons. And Battlestar: Galactica is a decidedly military-oriented sci-fi series, so most of the action and drama happens on the ship. You see characters using phones with cords and all these ancient computers, and you can’t help but feel sorry for them: like the human race doesn’t have enough to deal with.
It’s all these little struggles, plus the big one versus the cylons, that make the show so gripping. Against these overwhelming odds, how can you not root for the plucky humans trying to find their way back home?
That’s my kind of story: overcoming adversity, getting some revenge when you can, and present it all in a fun, fantastical package with strong, vibrant characters.
This last trip out west brought me back to a turning point in my life. More specifically, a simple pavement-and-paint road: Route 66.
Leaving the Kaibab Plateau on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and crossing the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, I entered New Mexico by way of I-40 and Gallup. The last time I was in Gallup was four years ago on a life-changing trip across country – the first of my great big adventures.
But I didn’t enter Gallup by Interstate; that was just the destination. Instead, I drove into Gallup like I did last time – by a smaller two-lane highway coming out of Arizona. Driving down Main Street, seeing the old Sante Fe Line railroad cars, being in Gallup brought back a lot of good memories.
So I thought, “What the heck? Why not?” I decided to hit the route again for old time’s sake. The only problem was that I came unprepared. No maps, no directions, no idea where, exactly, to jump on and start driving.
That’s the thing about Route 66: there are parts that remain in a straight line, but out west the road remains broken and jumps around in fits and starts. You don’t hop on and keep riding. You have to navigate the Mother Road, crossing the interstate, zipping down frontage roads, and then watch as the “Road Ends” sign signals a change of plans.
Doing the best I could, I tried it anyway. And let me tell you, it was great.
I flicked through my iPod playlists and hit “Play” on my Route 66 Mix. U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” Boston’s “Foreplay Long Time,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” The Eagle’s “Take It Easy,” Chuck Berry’s version of “Route 66” – it’s hard not to get emotional when those songs start playing while I’m driving on the road they were organized for.
There was only one wrong turn the whole way from Gallup to Albuquerque. It’s like my brain snapped into place and my hands become automatic sextants, guiding the rental car down a defunct highway.
Even though, for many miles, the route runs alongside the Interstate, I found (then, as now) that the mind occupies a totally different space when driving on Route 66. On the highway, you pay attention to your destination and the car around you, speeding and passing and watching for exits. On the Route, you pay attention to the Route: the scenery, the little towns you pass, the way the road meanders around rock formations and railroad tracks. You think differently driving at 55 miles per hour.
Of course, for me, there was a lot to think about. I couldn’t help but remember what was going on with my life four years ago, and how it mirrored today. Same stress, same heartache, same need to hit the road. It was only appropriate that I returned to the road that had given me so much comfort and respite back then.
For some parts, it was like waking up out of the slumber I’ve been in – both sobering and exciting to realize that, here I was, back in the desert, on my own again. I looked out at the landscape and thought, “I’m back.”
And it was good to see sections of the Route I missed in 2006. For that section of western New Mexico, I had traveled a lot of path in the dark. I remember pulling out of Albuquerque at sunset, sneaking into the Acoma Pueblo at twighlight (long past closing hours), and crawling into Gallup at night to sleep in my car. When it’s dark in the desert, it’s dark. So I missed large sections of the Route.
This time, it was pretty cool to see the parts I did remember again. There’s a little section an hour or two west of Albuquerque that winds through sandstone cliffs, and “Route 66” is painted on the asphalt along the way. I’d forgotten about that section of road through the years, but driving through those formations brought everything back. It could be that last time I didn’t grab a picture. This time I did:
Most of all, it was tons of fun to drive. Changes in altitude, taking corners at 15 or 25 miles per hour – it makes steering the car along the road a true joy.
On the way back home, during my shotgun trip across Arizona back to Las Vegas, I picked up bits and pieces of the Route – mostly because that’s all that’s left in Arizona. There’s a long section, between Seligman and Kingman, that was my favorite driving experience the last time I was out there. Past Kingman, the Route heads toward the Black Mountains, on the border with California, and snakes through Sitgreaves Pass – practically a religious experience for a young man from mid Michigan.
So I went back to that place. It’s a 10 minute drive outside of Kingman to the entrance of the Pass, and last time those mountains loomed at me. I remember my palms sweating, getting nervous, for no good reason except I felt something ominous about those mountains. Turns out I was right, because a winding, narrow, sheer-cliffed road facing the setting sun in a desolate landscape will put the fear of God into you. That road changes things. It broadens your horizons, and teaches you a bit about the unpredictable nature of the world. Plus it’s a pretty fun drive.
Last time, I came down the other side of those mountains – changed, sweating – and pulled over in Oatman just to get my bearings. A pair of the locals, probably feeling sorry for me, invited me to dinner and told me about guys who sat at the entrance of the pass and got paid to drive out-of-towners through Sitgreaves. Many who didn’t have help died falling down those rocky cliffs.
This time, it was nice just to see it again, and remember the dread I felt approaching that mountain pass as the sun was setting in May 2006. I only went part-way up because I had a plane to catch, but I came back down with some new resolutions and fond memories of my younger self. It was worth the return trip.
Plus, while in Albuquerque, I took a day’s drive up to Sante Fe and caught an old section of the Route, dating from 1938, that I didn’t catch last time. The Route changed, and straightened, to include Albuquerque after 1939. What I did see in Sante Fe wasn’t all that impressive, though – mainly a long commercial section with three lanes each way and many, many stoplights. Really, I was glad to be done with it when I hopped back on south-bound I-25.
But no matter where I was, the world changed on Route 66. It could be part sentimentality and part psychological need, but my heart needed a little trip down one of the best memories of my life. A return voyage to a great adventure, if only in small sections.