It happened. My 4 year old has found a franchise to latch on to. It’s not ideal: the one thing I’m the most allergic to in the world is horses. But if she’s into ponies she’s into ponies and there’s nothing I can do about that except embrace it. She’s got the toys, she’s got the bed-blanket, she’s got the t-shirt, and her favorite pony is Rainbow Dash. It’s a thing.
As an overprotective curling-dad, I consider it my solemn duty to learn about this thing that’s absorbing her attention. So I have been watching the show with her, trying to soak up the pony lore, learn of the details that make out this equestine construct.
The show follows Twilight Sparkle, a purple unicorn, as she visits “Ponyville” — the shining gem of the land of Equestria. You know… from equo in latin? Horse-land? Get it?
Twilight makes friends in Ponyville. Several of them. And she’s taught that though they are all different in appearance, interests, personality and even race, their friendship is the most important thing there is. When they’re all together, their friendship is literally magic. It’s in the tagline.
Sounds good right? It’s perfectly fine that my daughter watches such a diverse, female-positive and all-embracing show, right?
One of my favorite episodes of Lost — bear with me — is the one where wheelchair-bound John Locke cries “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” and then goes on a walkabout. This is at the core of the values I want my daughter to learn: if she can dream it, she can do it. For that reason I already know the answer to questions she might one day pose to me: “Can I be an astronaut, dad?” YES. “Can I be at the Olympics, dad?” YES. She’ll learn eventually that it might not be a walk in the park, but there’s no reason she should have some sort of arbitrary mental block put in place by me, preventing her from even trying.
Which brings me to Equestria. In Ponyville, there are three races of ponies. The ponies you know, unicorns who have magical powers, and pegasi who can fly and make it rain. They all live and work together seemingly in perfect glittering harmony.
How does this even work? How aren’t the only-ponies perpetually jealous of the other two races?
Ponies are literally born with predisposed skills. Unicorns have magic powers, one of them being that they can write. Pegasi can fly. Sorry Applejack, I suppose you have to manually pluck those apples for selling on the market to make ends meet. If only you were a unicorn you could just use magic, but hey, life’s tough right? Applejack is basically caste-blocked from ever advancing beyond her racially defined place in society.
The fact that only unicorns can write has its own problems. History is written by those who can, well, write… right? I hope everyone trusts the unicorns to be truthful. Better not upset them.
Ever noticed how My Little Ponies have back-tattoos? Applejack has apples, Pinkie Pie has balloons. Those are literal coming-of-age tattoos. Puberty isn’t mentioned, but it’s implied that once a pony reaches that age, whatever “talent” they have is stamped on their back. Forever. A visual indicator of what you are.
The stamps are called cutiemarks.
Back-tattoos aside (some of those are really lovely, I’m sure) I don’t know that I appreciate the idea that you even can have a talent as such—how about those 10,000 hours? What about multiple “talents”: which one gets stamped on you? And why does your one talent need to be permanently advertised to the world? What if your talent is not showering? If you’ll indulge me as I recall a history lesson about mechanical vs. organic societies, this “know your place” undercurrent that permeates Ponyville is a trait I do not find attractive. Also, if I am to ever get a back-tattoo I want it to be something I choose to get. Probably a japanese glyph I think means “fire” but in fact means “toast”. Something I can laugh at years down the line, not something that forever defines my place in the world.
Another observation was that every single pony in Ponyville is either beautifully styled and coiffed at all times. Or an unsightly donkey dragging a cart with a grumpy look on their face. In fact I don’t think I’ve seen a single handsome donkey on the show. They’re like morlocks.
One of the dude-ponies was called “Shining Armor”. A bit on the nose, eh, Lauren Faust? Also, why weren’t there any any girl knights? My daughter happens to love playing knights and princesses. She’s the knight, I’m the princess.
I don’t know what the lesson is. I think I wanted to vet the show, but having now watched one too many episodes with my daughter on the couch, I’m not sure there’s really a lesson to learn here.
Selma likes ponies, she likes watching them on the television with me. Perhaps she doesn’t have to learn about societal norms and expectations and caste systems and harmful stereotypes through a kids show about magical ponies, at age 4. She likes Rainbow Dash, and I think it’ll start and end with that.
Every once in a while, the topic of religion (or lack there-of) comes up in discussion among me and my friends. I often try to explain what atheism is, or actually what it isn't, and almost like clockwork it comes up: sounds a lot like religion. It's an innocent statement, but it also means my explanation failed yet again. It's a rousing topic full of nuance and passion, no matter the religion, agnosticism or atheism of the participant in the discussion. And it fascinates me so because it's supposed to be simple! After all, it's just semantics:
atheism, noun disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods
religion, noun the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
Clearly just by looking at the dictionary, one seems incompatible with the other. All the delicious nuance stems from the fact that the term "god" is part of both definitions.
Quick intermezzo before we get into the weeds: I have many friends with a multitude of different religions, people whom I love and respect deeply. I'm not here to take anyones faith away. This is not about whether religion is a force for good or not, there are far more intelligent debates to be had elsewhere. I just like discussing semantic nuance.
What makes it so difficult to pin down is the fact that atheism is really just a word in the dictionary. We're not even very protective about such words, so we change its meaning from time to time. New information comes to light! The term evolves and mutates and comes to include more meaning still. Looking broadly, though, the definition of atheism forks in two general directions. One direction has it defined mainly as a disbelief in a god or gods, while the other considers it a lack of belief in a god or gods. Did you catch the difference between the two? It's quite subtle, yet substantial.
Disbelief means you believe there are no gods. You've put your two and two together, and decided hey — it just doesn't make sense to me. This is unlike religion in a couple of obvious ways, first of all the fact that there's no holy text that describes what you must or must not believe. There's no promise of an afterlife or lack thereof if you don't, err, not believe in god. There's no codex of laws you have to follow to be a "true" atheist. And there are no places you can go to to meet other atheist to, uh, not pray with. (Actually you can still say a prayer if you want to, it's not like The Atheist Police comes knocking on your door if you do).
The absence of belief, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to pin down. If for whatever reason you never learned about god, well, then you are without belief in god. How could you believe in something you never heard of? Take my daughter for instance. She's 3, and she's only talked for the past year or so. I don't think anyone has told her about religion, not that I know of at least. So she is, by definition, without belief in god. Literally atheos — greek for "without god(s)". It wasn't her choice, how could she even make one? I'm not even sure she'd understand what I was talking about if I tried — she'd probably ask for her juicebox and crayons. From this perspective, being an atheist is, in many ways, a default position. It's what you're born as. Even if you later in life find solace and happiness in religion, until you found that religion you were for all intents and purposes, an atheist. There's no shame in that, it's just a word.
I half expect some readers (thanks for reading 737 words discussing semantics by the way) to ask me: why so defensive, are you sure you're not describing a religion? Sure, once in a while you'll encounter someone who takes their atheism so seriously it borders on being a religious experience for them. But that's fine, they can call themselves atheists too. It's not like you get a badge at the door. Atheism isn't organized behind a hashtag, and it's not about ethics in games journalism.
You are an atheist until you choose not to be, and there's room for all of us.
My baby has an inner ear infection. Often times these ailments disappear on their own. Other times they get real bad. Thankfully we have Penicillin, which fixes it right up.
One day in 1928 — it was a Friday — the scotsman Alexander Fleming went about his daily business at St. Mary's Hospital in London. He was working in his laboratory when he discovered he'd forgotten to close up a petri dish of bacteria from the night before. What he noticed would change the world: a mould had grown in that petridish, and in a halo around that mould the bacteria had stopped growing. What Alexander Fleming had discovered would save tens of millions of lives in the century to come: this natural mould exuded a substance that had antibiotic properties. Not a decade later we had Penicillin, and on this Friday in 2014, Penicillin is helping cure my baby girl. Thank you, Alexander Fleming.
There's a problem, though. Penicillin is a wonderful drug, but bacteria — just like humans — evolve and grow stronger. Put a drop of Penicillin in a petridish of bacteria and the bacteria will die. Probably. There's a tiny chance some of those bacteria will survive due to a random Penicillin-resistant mutation. Those lucky few survivers might reproduce and migrate. Repeat this process for a century and you're bound to have a couple of strains of bacteria to which even the strongest of Penicillins are useless.
We knew this would happen. Yet still to this day, Penicillin is used on a grand scale in meat-production of all things. When cattle have particularly bad living conditions, when too many cows are huddled up in too little space, they'll inflict little scratches on each other, wounds that might heal naturally on a green field of grass. But if your living quarters are also where you go to the toilet, no such luck. Hey, thought the meat industry, we can just pump the cattle full of Penicillin and no bacteria will grow in those wounds!
The way we treat our cattle is troublesome enough, but the inevitable consequences should be alarming. Those dirty farms and cattle transports are evolutionary crucibles for resistant bacteria. The strong bacteria will survive and require stronger Penicillins. It's an evolutionary arms race and we're losing. We always knew bacteria would evolve to be Penicillin-resistant eventually, but if we'd been smart about our Penicillin usage, we might've had enough time to research functional alternatives. As it stands, I'm worried about a future dad and his daughter battling an infection maybe just ten years from now. I hope she'll be alright, man.
So I guess here's another reason you should eat organic meat. Or no meat, that works too.
On my way home from work today, I stopped my bicycle at a red light. There was a scooter right next to me, also awaiting the green light. I noticed the chauffeur (is that the right word? I don't think so) had his right hand on the speeder. Revving. Wroom. Wroom. Wroom. Wroom. Wroom. On and on, like a nervous tick. Surely the scooter is recent enough that he doesn't need to rev his engine to keep it from going out, I thought to myself. It wasn't a particularly cool scooter — it was the type of scooter that'll make most casual observers think "man what a lazy person, why aren't you on your bike instead?"
It's fine. It was in the middle of downtown. I had a podcast in my ear, and cars were going by. The noise level was measured in enough decibels that I wasn't worried about falling asleep at the wheel; a little noise from a constantly revved engine like that will surely blend into white noise, I thought.
And it should have, but this pointless revving reminded of a motorcyclist who lives in the building across from me (fortunately not for long). I'm pretty sure he suffers from a severe case of douchebag-itis, enough that he should at least have it checked by a doctor (if you don't treat douchebag-itis early, you might end up buying a Porsche Cayenne!). Now this motorcyclist constantly revs the engine, to a point where I'm pretty sure it affects the performance of his driving — it's really quite ridiculous. Alas, this happens even when there are sleeping babies around. Of which I have one. That is, she's sleeping some of the time. She's not when he's revving his engine.
The difference between a motorcycle and a scooter is that one of them makes an engine-noise that could theoretically be satisfying to the part of the population that has octane in their blood. Theoretically. When I muster all the testosterone that I can, testosterone that's usually busy making me an exoskeleton for my daughter, I can sort of understand this.
I can't understand revving the engine on a scooter. Because scooters are not, and do not sound, cool. Ever. If you looked up cool in the dictionary, you'd see a picture of Miles Davis. Not a scooter. Not Miles Davis on a scooter. There would be no scooters nearby. No presentations discussing the birth of the cool would mention scooters.
So please dear scooterist, answer me this: why are you revving your engine?
Trust me. I looked long and hard for a "my other mode of transportation is a Millennium Falcon" bumper sticker on the scooter. Because yeah, revving the Millennium Falcon, that's cool bra', yo dawg). Unfortunately, such a sticker was nowhere to be found. I could only see an itsy bitsy engine, making loud noises by the rhythmic revving. I meant to chuckle, but I was baffled chuckleless.
Parenthood is a club. Not necessarily a prestigious or elitist club, just a club. Like nerds really into Settlers of Catan, so do parents share a profound, mystical understanding. No, it's not that non-parents aren't welcome into this club, it's just that — like the Matrix — you cannot be told what it is like, you have to experience it for yourself. To clarify, by "parents" I also mean surrogate-moms and dads, adopters and sure even pet-owners — it's not about the blood, it's about taking on the responsibility of a life other than your own.
It's the little things that set parents apart. Like spotting a passing baby-carriage and quieting down as you pass it by. It's having been desensitized to diaper jokes. It's going to bed early and honestly looking forward to the morning coffee at 05:19. Mostly, it's carrying a void in your heart when you're away from the little one for too long.
From an outsiders perspective, parents are super annoying. They appear to be completely self-centered around their own little world. They bring their kids to grocery stores. And on flights, oh god they bring kids on flights make it stop. And they yell, and their children scream, and they lose their temper, and they should be bringing up their kids differently I'd show them how I'd teach'em good. And oh man the topics they drone on about, on and on and on and on, hours on end. "Did you know the diapers are really cheap in that store you don't normally shop in?" "Oh you really should be using cotton diapers, those one-time diapers aren't good for you." "Selma's teething now, it makes me look forward to the morning coffee at 05:19." Terrible.
Bear with us. Becoming a parent does something to you. The sleep deprivation combined with the intrinsic knowledge that failure won't ever be an option, sprinkled with the occasional tiny smile you receive from the creature in your care. It'll hit you like you haven't been hit before. It may only be chemistry, but it'll make you see through time and feel like you can punch through a wall. When I held my baby girl in my hands for the first time, while it was the biggest moment in my life, it was frankly bittersweet. The moment reminded me that everyone was once a cute little baby. That angry cat lady down the street who keeps yelling at you for no good reason. The sad homeless guy carrying an ominous sign. They were both once little cute babies, with a mother who nursed them and cared for them. Or, even more heartbreaking, lost their mothers.
It makes you realise you have something to lose now. Like a chronic tristesse, it drastically widens your perspective. Life takes on new meaning. Yeah, it'll likely take a while before you can watch the news again. Yeah, it'll make you focus your complete attention on children in your vicinity — not only your own, but other children as well. And yes, doing so will make you seem completely self-centered to your peers. It's a steep price and there are no returns. Fortunately it takes only one smile from the little creature and you're willing to pay double.
When you reach a certain age, that is, the age when you start sentences with "When you reach a certain age", you start to think that kids today aren't what they used to be. Which is of course an eternal falsetruth because kids both are, and are not what they used to be. And kids today say "fail".
Actually, kids say many dumb things, including "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but the word "fail" when used as a noun, makes me die a little inside. Like the sound frequency that breaks glass, the mere utterance of the word initiates an intellectual necrosis in my being. It makes me sad, tired, and a little on-edge. Instantly.
It's not so much the meaning, I'm fine with failing. In fact, I do it all the time. Sometimes I even learn from my failures. That's when experience is generated. Yay for that.
It's when the word is used in its impoverished, truncated non-verb form. Fail. It makes me think of George Orwell and Idiocracy. It confirms my fears of the future and amplifies them. We're dumbing down the language to a point where expression is becoming a scarce resource; and this at a time where the tools for publishing said are increasingly numerous and easy to use. Yet time and again expressions are truncated, not even filling the 140 character limit. Poof. Gone with the wind in a cacophany of who cares.
Go start a blog or something, write about your cat or the difficulty of the human condition. If you must use the word "fail", use it in a sentence. On the other hand, if enough people use the noun-form word in a meaningful way — excrutiating as it would be — one day "fail" would be canonized a noun in the dictionary. What would really sanction the word would be if Stephen Hawking used it to describe string theory. That would be the day I embraced newspeak.
While listening to my favorite podcast the other day, one host casually threw out this statement, which is all it takes to infuriate me:
I don't believe in pills
Well good for you. And real fucking good you don't have allergies. Or Pneumonia.
In all fairness, this is a statement that I hear all the time from all sorts of people. It's also a statement that probably shouldn't be taken at face value; I'm sure the host in question was referring to plain headache pills or even vitamin pills. While I'm at it, let me clarify that I harbor a tremendous respect for this particular host, and he does believe in vaccines so he's not a moron. So let's not make this about him. Which is why, in the interest of putting myself in the opposing viewpoint, there are many reasons why you might want to avoid some pills. Multi-vitamin pills may or may not work, and if you eat right: fish, vegetables, meat or chickpeas, you're probably better off without 'em. Also, make sure you get lots of sunlight so you can skip the D-vitamins. It's probably also better to search for the root cause of your headache (did you remember to hydrate?) than to eat a painkiller. Finally, there's a lingering concern that some pills, especially pills involving hormones, have serious side-effects we might not know about until the next generation.
That's all good and well. But the statement still kills me. "I don't believe in pills". Well fuck you: pills can save lives. Pills can cure you. Pills can relieve your pain. Pills can give you a decent life despite chronic illnesses or even ease the passage of someone with a terminal disease. Sure, some of those pills have side-effects, but sometimes you'd rather experience the side-effects than the effects of the illness for which you're eating the pills in the first place. I personally prefer to eat antihistamines and be just a little bit tired all the time over not being able to breathe. In fact, I really love those pills, despite their side-effects, and I sure as hell believe in those pills. Because those pills work.
I'm not out to lambast anyone for this particular brand of ignorance; everyone is entitled to a modicum of stupidity. But I want to shine a light on the fact that saying "I don't believe in pills" makes you sound like a dumb douchebag. It's a simplistic view of life and you could at the very least augment your opinion by clarifying that you prefer not to eat pills if there's a readily available alternative to your particular needs.
Or do you just want me to grind up your pills and put them in some OJ, sport?
This night, Christopher Hitchens passed. He'd been struggling with cancer for a couple of years, yet he'd kept going despite knowing exactly what was in store for him.
A passing always hits a special part of your body, an organ you did not know was there. It's like losing part of what helped keep your balance. It's going to take some time to find a new balance in absence of that support.
When Arthur C. Clarke passed, he'd lived a lifetime and written more than one lifetimes worth of work. Knowing that, it was somewhat more easy to celebrate his life and work, knowing he'd more than fulfilled his promise. Douglas Adams life, on the other hand, was cut short like now Hitchens was. Surely both Adams and Hitchens have achieved more in their lives than many of us can ever hope to, but it still makes this no less tragic.
Hitch had a profound impact on me. Through his writing and speaking he logically approached the difficulty of the human condition. In no uncertain terms, Hitch managed to make actual sense of what might not have any sense in the first place. Not believing in God is not as easy as it sounds. The notion that this is it and even if you live a life unfulfilled in the end you'll return to the void, that is a hard pill to swallow. Somehow it puts the injustice of the world in an even starker contrast.
Through this, Hitch taught me that what I need to strive for in life is to have more good days than bad days. He taught me what I want for my own deathbed; to have made some impact in the lives of the people I spent it with, to hopefully have been an invisible support to give balance. You were that support to me, Hitch, and like walking a staircase missing a step, I expect to stumble in your absence. I will do my best to find a new balance and help others do so. And I will tell my daughter about you.
The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it — Thucydides