Friday, March 29, 2013

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin

I'll be honest: I don't like seeing homeless people standing in medians, holding cardboard signs, and asking for money. Their presence makes me uncomfortable, because I am driving a car and wearing clean clothes and wearing my permanent orthodontic retainer and showing any number of other signs of relative privilege, while they are the epitome of need. I am blessed in many ways that keep me from standing on a roadside asking for help from strangers. Ways, in other words, in which these people are not blessed.

When I really assess my discomfort, I find that it doesn't come from a deep fear of that-could-be-me. It doesn't come from the not-uncommon opinions of go-get-a-job-why-don't-ya or you'll-probably-just-spend-it-on-booze. No, it comes from the feeling of skewed perspectives skewering my own self-evaluation. I might often think that I am broke, but my tough times are a hell of a lot cushier than the guy fortunate enough to find a piece of cardboard and a magic marker.

Yesterday, pulling into the grocery story, Jenny and I passed a man in the median asking for help. His dog laid by him, clearly pleased just to be with her friend. I felt bad for the dog, who hadn't asked to be in this situation -- as if the man had.

We bought the staples to get us through the month -- milk, eggs, bananas -- our tight budget for the month already tapped. We left the store, and the light at the edge of the parking lot turned red. I was first in line to pull up next to the man and dog in need. "I don't want to look at them," I said. "I feel too bad." So I stopped the car where the windshield pillar obstructed my view.

I stared straight ahead, in that way where I was ignoring the man by trying to look like I wasn't ignoring him. I couldn't even look at Jenny, because it would look like I was avoiding looking at him. I think the whole time, she was busy staring at me. "Or you could just help them, if you want to. We have change."

Protest was my reaction. We did have change in the console; not much, but some, and it was for parking meters. Yet I felt that Jenny's spirit was open and giving at that moment. Why wasn't mine more so? Especially because I had Grace Lin's book fresh in mind, where Minli learns to be thankful for what she has, and to improve other folks' fortunes instead of her own. Where everyone finds happiness that way.

I didn't think. I rode the wave of feeling that swelled from my gut to my shoulders. I scooped up the tray of coins, rolled down the window, pulled forward, and handed the man the change. While the notoriously long light sat on red, we chatted. He was not a homeless man, and I was not a driver of a car. We were two guys talking about a sweet dog.

More factors went into that moment than a kid's book about a girl's attempts to change her family's fortune. But Where the Mountain Meets the Moon played its part. Books change the world, because they change their readers. That's the strength of a story.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

You want to know what's backwards? As kids, we ask "why" of everything. As adults, we cease to question "why" of everything. We get selective. We accept a whole lot of "what" exists and "what" works, but we pry a whole lot less into "why" it exists and "how" it works.

From where I stand, that's a shame. That's a whole bunch of shame. The world doesn't become any less fascinating and new when we age. Or at least, it doesn't have to.

Charles Duhigg would respond -- and he wouldn't be wrong -- that an accepting brain is a habitual brain, and a habitual brain is an efficient brain. If we got bogged down in the "why" and "how" of every question, we would never accomplish anything in our daily lives. And to a point, I agree. If I questioned how I put toothpaste on my toothbrush every  morning, brushing my teeth would require both more time and more energy.

But when I encounter something new, I want to know all about it. I'm not satisfied with learning that habits exist, that they can be changed, that corporations use my habits to manipulate my purchasing behavior. I'm not satisfied with shallow answers to "why" and "how," like "habits exist because your brain internalizes a routine following a certain cue, in order to obtain a certain reward." I want to know why the brain does that in the first place, and how the heck this lumpy gray matter can organize itself in such a complex arrangement.

Some books go into those nitty gritties. I appreciate those books. As a kid, I sometimes asked "why" ad nauseam -- but beyond the pleasure of annoying the questioned adult, I always wanted to find out where the rock bottom of explanation was. More often than not, I found a "why" or a "how" deep enough to quench my curiosity. Deep enough where I could learn something that I didn't know before, and that I could not extrapolate on my own. Deep enough where I discovered another piece of the universe.

I wish more books took it upon themselves to dig deep. The Power of Habit will help me out at my next cocktail party. It taught me cool facts. It granted me an awareness of my habits and my ability to make decisions. But it didn't grant me any thorough understanding, the kind of knowledge that I could apply to the wider world. And the shame is, it could have. It could have dug deeper.

Why didn't it?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Edge of Reason, by Melinda Snodgrass

Melinda Snodgrass may well have her books burned in the streets. (I hope not. No book deserves to be burned.) But the likelihood stems from this chain: Book-burners tend to be fanatics of one stripe or another; fanatics tend to rely on belief rather than knowledge and emotion rather than rational thought; The Edge of Reason is the first book of a series that pits science against magic in a real-world, Large Hadron Collider-versus-fundamentalist religion sort of way; Snodgrass and her heroes come down on the side of reason; fanatics tend to not like it when folks point out they might be eeeeeevil.

Thus, seemingly inevitable book-burning.

Knowledge has bumped against faith for centuries, so our contemporary struggles are nothing new. That said, the United States appears to be stuck in a roach-trap of denying knowledge in the face of faith. I will never hold a person's religious beliefs against them, but I will fault a person for ignoring verifiable conclusions with no better cause than "well, I just don't think that's true."

As citizens of the world, we each have a responsibility to accept the empirical evidence staring us down. Global climate change isn't something we "believe" in -- it's something that exists whether we believe it or not. Like the sun, or gravity. And for all the questions regarding Beowulf's exact date of composition, the interpretation of its poetry, its clues to the history of a region, its religious influences, and (less questionable, thanks to Tolkien) its literary merit, we can be quite certain that Grendel was not a Tyrannosaurus rex. We cannot ignore the linguistic workings of Old English no matter how much we believe that a word means something it just doesn't.

Belief and faith may alter our brain structures, but even that result is not merely faith-based, in that it is scientifically verifiable.

Faith in a God should not controvert the world that He/She/It is believed to have created. For the faithful, why can science not be a way of receiving messages from above? Why must science be the enemy of religion, when the religious could view science as illuminating God's wonder and beauty?

I genuinely wish I could understand the answers to these questions. I may never be satisfied with the responses, though, because reason and belief operate on two different planes. We don't use the same language, so when one says "We're having brussel sprouts for dinner," the other answers "But I don't like carrots!" Both sides know they're on the same subject, but discourse is impossible when one side refuses to acknowledge the tenets of the other.

Melinda Snodgrass is not exaggerating. A war does exist, and it may well determine the fate of our planet and our very humanity. How much nicer it would be if our species could settle this over a cup of tea.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dark Rivers of the Heart, by Dean Koontz

A lovable villain, quest for true love, and a mutt with need for speed? Go on. Read the book, and support the blog while you're at it.

I would not be off base if I used Dark Rivers of the Heart to springboard a discussion about accountability in government, the power of different offices and agencies, and the tenuous definition of freedom in America today. The technology in this nineteen-year-old thriller might be laughably outdated (a hard drive in gigabytes all but gives protagonist Spencer Grant a boner), but the concerns about an out-of-control political power system come across oddly prescient.

Though I figure, why spend time on stuff we mere citizens cannot control when I could talk about puppies?

Seriously, the dog in this book steals the show. Rocky is a total mutt, but with a personality that jumps off the page more vividly than most human characters I've read. Is it not totally natural that Spencer should turn to his pup when he cannot rely on people? Rocky and Spence give each other a reason to live, someone to struggle for, a companion in quirkiness. Without turning this post into a Chicken Soup story, can I at least say that loads of folks in this world would benefit from socializing more often with animals?

Not just with dogs, either, though they are my species of choice. This world has cat people, goat people, fish people, bird people, horse people, snake people, and they all find a level of humanity in their relationships with critters. The sense may come merely from caring for a dislocated and otherwise helpless creature, like a gecko in a terrarium or a clown fish in an aquarium. Sometimes a more reciprocal relationship, complete with expectations and cues and routines, develops.

I've heard plenty of people claim not to be "an animal person." Perhaps some such heathens folks never had the right exposure to pets. But is a complete lack of animal connection not in some sense a denial of humanity? Human civilization, human culture, humanity period would not exist without our partnerships with domesticated creatures. You think we have technology if we don't have dogs helping us hunt and protecting our clans? You think we have society if beasts of burden don't help us till the first agricultural fields?

Not a chance. Animals -- pets, farm animals, all of 'em -- gave us the luxury of efficiency. And in our new spare time, we created civilization.

Dean Koontz's Dark Rivers is, as expected, a story of life and death, of survival, of technology. It's also a story of the fate of civilization. Our animals gave us the gift to grow; will we take that gift and mutilate it with drone strikes and surveillance? Or will we side with Rocky and strive for love, freedom, and true companionship?