A Collision of Absolutes

14 07 2014

messageinabottlesigI’m not a chemist by trade.  It just happened that nearly all of the available chemists had tried and failed.  By “failed,” I mean that they inspected the ocean by the direct method of leaning over the railing of the boat and examining it assiduously, as opposed to the intended laboratory method.  While it is true that I was able to perform the task of quantitative chemical analysis while getting banged about the insides of a lurching craft without getting seasick, I must admit that the experience was not exactly a pleasure cruise.  They told me that I would be on the boat for the first day only, and then I was to be on standby, on terra firma, while Carlos, the real chemist, carried the analysis through the rest of the study period.  As soon as he yawned, I knew he was a goner.  By the end of the second analysis, he turned to Felix, our trainer, with a pained look on his face and said, “Felix, I’m not going to be able to do this.”  At that, I was officially the new chemist.

With Carlos lying on a bench in the kitchen, dangerously close to our entire display of food, moaning and rubbing his face, I continued the work with Felix.  In his heavily Spanish-accented way, Felix tells me, “I don’t know why everybody get sick.  I do this many time and feel fine.”  Felix, I conclude, has a botched-up vestibular system, and I tell him as much.  His canals have got to be about one degree short of a full semicircle, or something.  As I’m gripping the counter, waiting for the meter to stabilize, he’s running back and forth across the room, quite literally, unable to find his balance, except on occasion when he crashes into me and grabs my arm for support.  The boss tells me that they’re trying to replace this venerable old man before he gets himself injured…again…, and I quite believe it.

Like the drug dealer I’ve become, I offered Carlos a dose of my chemical secret, but I don’t think it had enough of an effect.  He provided Felix with a moment of delight when he made his inevitable run for the railing.  Much to the old man’s disappointment, there was no feeding of the fish forthcoming.  Carlos managed, just barely, to contain himself.

So I continued the remainder of the study with Felix looking over my shoulder.  We managed to get through the whole thing with only two mistakes.  The first was the mistake made by poor Carlos, who was barely functioning, and the second was made by Felix, which I caught in time to avert any effect on our results.  Consequently, the supervisor in charge of the study approached me afterward to congratulate me and to say that I was officially the main analyst for that study once per year, every year, for the rest of my career.  I’m wondering if it’s too late to switch my line of work.

Michelle, however her name is spelled, rode with us on our last day out.  Not wanting to see her go through torment any more than the last two ill individuals who came before her, I offered her Dramamine before she even got on the boat.  I noticed that giving it to the last two seasick individuals I rode with after they got sick was not entirely effective, so I gave her a half dose, preventatively.  I wondered if she could really handle that much, wispy little Asian that she was.  She did alright, inasmuch as she succeeded in not getting seasick.  However, she’ll need to master the art of chemical analysis while sleeping, which is almost the only thing she did that trip.  She poked her head through the interior window dividing us from the kitchen, where she was, and she asked, “So, you used to talk about theology a lot with Peter?”  Peter is the fellow who performed this task, before wisely taking a severe pay cut and a pastorate in Georgia, getting me stuck as his replacement in the process.

Michelle, however her name is spelled, tells me she is a Calvinist and a member of a Reformed denomination, though, as she puts it, she does not consider herself a “five-point, T.U.L.I.P. Calvinist.”  That’s fine, I say.  I’m a monergist, and so was Peter.  I explain that a monergist is a Calvinist who gets his doctrine from the Bible, not necessarily knowing or caring what Calvin thought about the matter.  “Oh,” she says, in that intoxicated stupor, “I see.”  I begin to resume my work, when she drops a little bombshell on me.  “I’m not so sure about the penal substitution thing,” she tells me, ever so casually.

Penal substitution is this little matter of belief that some Christians have that Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins.  Oh, seriously, it’s the crux of Christianity.  Without it, there is no Christianity.  Michelle had always considered herself a Christian, and everyone knew her as one, so I paused in my work, feeling a little stunned, and I replied, “Uh, Michelle, that’s no small doctrine.”

“I know,” she tells me.  “We can talk about it later.  I don’t mean to get into it now,” and then she promptly went back to sleep.

There’s an inherent problem with absolutes.  The conflict arises whenever there is more than one of them.  We say that an absolute is something that can never, NEVER, be untrue.  It is unchanging across all times and places, and it yields to nothing, which is why it becomes such a paradox whenever one absolute runs afoul of another.  We generally avoid this conflict by saying that God is the only absolute, and there is only one of him.  In fact, it is this absoluteness that gives rise to the very idea of the Trinity.  If we say that there are three of God, then it is the same as saying that there is one of him, because all three are necessarily absolute and agree at every point.  Multiplicity and singularity mean the same thing with an absolute, such as God.  Problems only arise when we have more than one absolute and they are not the same absolute.  Even if we only have one God, we still have a God with multiple attributes, and therein lies the potential for conflict.  Normally, as humans, we frequently endure such internal conflicts.  Sometimes it’s choosing between two favorite restaurants, or choosing between writing a weblog  post or spending time with with one’s wife (speaking of which…), or some other difficult choice, but it always results in one option falling in defeat to the other.  Ultimately, for us, it is never a choice between absolutes, but it is a weighing of degrees between each of two or more options.  If God, being absolute, gets stuck in choosing between two options that are both absolutely important to him, then we have a serious problem.  He cannot reject either one, even if they are mutually exclusive.

It’s the case of the irresistible force that meets the immovable object.  One cannot be stopped, and the other cannot be moved.  If God loves absolutely, then he will do everything he can to save us from our demise, but if God has absolute justice and an absolute demand for sinlessness, then he cannot reward us with Heaven nor deny us the punishment of Hell if we are sinners.  On the one hand, he must absolutely save us, if he can, and I might add that it would seem foolish to suggest that he can’t,  and on the other hand, he absolutely must judge us as we deserve.  We put him in an impossible spot.  What happens next is the collision of absolutes.  God, the absolute judge, collided with God, the absolute savior, and he self-destructed, right there on the cross.  It was a cosmic traffic accident, the collision of the irresistible force with the immovable object, the deliberate self-destruction of God.  That is the essence of penal substitution, and it’s the reason we can have hope in salvation through Christ’s work on the cross.  Infinity was divided by infinity, giving one-hundred percent for anyone added to that expression.

Michelle looks up at me in awe, nearly cross-eyed with sleepiness, and replies with an almost drunken slur, “That is so beautiful.  I’ve never heard that before,” and then she falls back to sleep.

dustysig





Splitting Hares

26 10 2013

hareThe day that the hare moved into the area,  I was riding with my dad down the long driveway, with that long-legged Lepus trotting along ahead of us.  My dad grumbled something to the effect of, “There goes the neighborhood!”  By his reasoning, the presence of the faster species was a death sentence to the local rabbit population.  He wondered aloud to himself if maybe he should kill it while he still had the chance.  A rabbit was just a rabbit, to me.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect I’m not the only person in the world who didn’t know the difference between the two.  There were simply long-legged rabbits and short-legged ones.  There were fast rabbits and even faster ones.  Until someone pointed out the differences and gave me a new word to call it by, I only saw one species.

My fellow bird watchers know what I mean.  Spend any time with someone who has never learned the names of different birds, and it becomes apparent that people who have not learned the species names cannot see the different species.  I was walking with my boss one day, and she pointed to a phoebe and asked me if it was a sparrow.  If you don’t know what they’re called, then all little birds are sparrows.  The differences that seem obvious to a bird watcher are insignificant to someone who doesn’t know one bird from another.  We’re not even talking about the differences between crows and ravens, assuming there are any.

Chinese people, Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese are all vastly different from each other from their own point of view.  Just ask them, and they’ll tell you.  A white American can’t tell them apart:  they’re all Asians.  The differences between the nationalities seem ludicrously insignificant to the white American, even when those differences are pointed out.

So, on the one hand, while sparrows and phoebes might all seem the same to someone who only knows the name of one of them, Chinese and Japanese all seem the same to someone who has not learned to appreciate the differences, even with the categorization.  Differentiation, then, is a two-step process.  Without a new word to name the different thing, there is no grasping the existence of a different thing.  Even with the new word, there is no grasping that difference without a clear understanding of the distinction in the definition.  The general trend in our society, lately, is to eliminate these distinctions.  Smaller groups are getting lumped into larger ones, and words that used to have distinct meanings are becoming more synonymous.  The end result is that we are becoming less clear in our understanding of things in general, and we are less able to deal intelligently with life.

Eskimos were said to have had seven different words for snow.  I don’t know if they still do.  Westerners have largely civilized the native American.  We might be inclined to think of, possibly, several different textures for snow if we try hard enough.  To be honest, I don’t think I could distinguish between as many as seven.  Certainly, though, they would all be different versions of the same thing, to me.  To the Eskimo, they were seven different things.  This is not to say that they didn’t understand the fundamental connection between the different types, that they were all different forms of the same thing, but they saw greater significance in the difference.  The different types of snow were functionally different to them in ways that us southerners will never grasp.  When building a home requires a specific kind of snow, the type of snow is more than just a difference of how much the snowball hurts when it hits you.

We of the English-speaking variety have had a number of words lose their distinction lately.  Some of those words are less important, like the differences between idiots, morons and imbeciles (pre-politically correct terms later replaced, collectively by the term “retarded,” which, itself, became incorrect and was replaced by the word “developmentally challenged.”)  Most people can’t tell one term from another, and they’ve all become mere pejoratives, anyway.  Some of these words used to have more useful distinctions, however, and before we throw them forever into the smelting pot of synonymity, we might consider whether it will result in our understanding things, in general, less clearly.

Joy versus Happiness:

When I ask virtually anyone what the difference is between joy and happiness, I get a quizzical look in response.  Is there any real difference between the two?  Yet, if I ask what is the difference between depression and sadness, almost no one has trouble understanding the difference.  The reason is simply that our society is becoming better acquainted with sorrow than with joy.  Sadness is to depression what happiness is to joy.  A person can be happy but not have joy.  A person can have a moment of happiness but be depressed, overall.  Or, better yet, a person can be sad in the short run, but ultimately be joyful.  Hard as it is to understand, happy people commit suicide.  In fact, depressed people typically become quite happy once they decide to do the deed.  Joyful people never kill themselves.  Of all of the people I’ve asked, only Christians have demonstrated any grasp of the difference.  When I start to explain the difference, recognition shows on their face, and they tell me that they know what I mean.  Their joy is based on Heaven.  No matter how bad the temporary circumstances, the bigger picture is guaranteed to be bright.  A depressed person sees the opposite, that no matter how good the current circumstances, the bigger picture is always hopeless.  Some people, namely those who don’t believe in Heaven, would say that the distinction between joy and happiness is meaningless, but I would argue, why should we be more intimately knowledgeable about sadness than happiness?  We sell our joy by merging definitions.

Rights versus Entitlement:

I saw someone on a forum argue that something is a right when you like it, and it’s an entitlement when you don’t.  This ignorance is inexcusable.  Now, the terms are, lately, politically charged, so we’ll try to approach this as objectively as possible.  A right is something that you, yourself, should be permitted to do.  An entitlement is, strictly speaking, something that you should be able to have.  Because having a thing requires either getting it yourself or having someone get it for you, getting it yourself is more of a right, and true entitlement is about having others provide a thing for you.  At the outset, it would be tempting to say that rights can be good, but entitlement can never be good.  Conservatives often see it this way.  If having a thing requires making someone else provide it for me, then I would seem especially greedy to think I have a right to it.  Let’s think of it differently: if I pay cash for a new car, but I have to wait for it to be shipped from a lot in Arizona to a local lot in California, which I did recently, then I am entitled to that car.  I had a contractual agreement with the company.  If not the car, then I was at least entitled to a refund.  If someone makes me a promise in exchange for my services, then I am entitled to the fulfillment of that promise.  No conservative could argue with that.  Then, we can agree that some entitlements are acceptable.  Liberals, however, are more likely to blur the lines between rights and entitlement.  The previously mentioned forum poster did not know the difference between the two, which said everything about his political leanings.  He might say that he had a right to health care or a right to food, shelter and clothing.  He would have better said that he was entitled to health care, food, shelter and clothing.  No one was stopping him from getting those things for himself.  There was no dispute as to whether he had the right to pursue his health and happiness.  When he said that he had a right to it, what he meant was that he was entitled to it, not that he should be permitted to pursue it, but that he should get it somehow, even at the expense of others.

Personally, I’m not entirely certain that there really is such a thing as an inalienable right given to us by our creator, but only because of the fact that a man being mauled by a bear in the woods would not benefit from claiming those rights.  The bear wouldn’t understand it, and, if he could understand it would not agree with it, and God might not enforce it.  Rights really only exist within human interactions with each other.  Hence, it’s not so much a matter of my right to pursue something as it is your responsibility to let me pursue it.  In that case it comes back to one person’s expectation of another, but in a different way.  One person’s entitlement is another person’s responsibility to fulfill that entitlement.  Hence, responsibility comes into play in both cases.  Hence, the confusion.

Good versus Nice:

This one is a personal pet peeve of mine.  It’s probably the nastiest symptom of our degenerating society.  People equate being nice with being good.  The confusion of terms is so solid, now, that hardly anyone can extricate one term from the other, anymore.  War, for example, is one of the meanest things that humanity has ever committed.  Hence, all war is considered by some as the antithesis of good.  That being the case, such people are having a harder time saying that America’s involvement in World War II was a good thing, even though it meant stopping the Nazis and their ruthless murder of millions of innocent people.  We get the cliché, “War is not the answer,” because war is bad and peace is good.  War is bad, because war is not nice.  Peace is good because peace is nice.  Hence, all things nice automatically get the stamp of approval.  Spanking a child is not nice, therefore it is not good.  The child grows up to be a selfish whiny adult, but at least the parent was nice.  People in our world are incapable of imagining how a thing can be nice but not be good, or be nice and horribly evil.  Hence, the nicest thing to do with homosexuality is to condone it, and the nicest thing to do with bestiality is to condone it.  Therefore, accepting everyone’s lifestyle is good, and rejecting anyone’s lifestyle is bad, because it’s judgemental and not nice.

I wonder if the emergence of these ugly twisted pieces of metal that I find in public places, labelled as art, are the direct result of this trend.  Rejecting bad art is not nice, therefore accepting even the ugliest work of chaos is deemed good.  As a result, we get to look at ugly scrap metal instead of real art, with real beauty.  We cannot discriminate between good and bad art, because we cannot discriminate between good judgement and nice judgement.

Truth versus Fairness:

The fairest thing to do is to allow people to marry anyone, or anything, that they want, regardless of sex or species.  That’s the way things are currently heading.  It doesn’t really stop there.  The fact is, it’s fairer to let people marry or do anything that they want, at all.  If they want to flush a toilet and call it marriage, then that’s the fairest thing to do.  Get out the marriage license and file it with the county records department.  Repeat after me, “With this lever, I thee flush….”  If a man pulls up to a gas station and wants to fill his car with gas, then the fairest thing to do is to let him fill it with gas however he wants, even by sticking the nozzle up the tailpipe and squeezing the trigger.  If the pump has to be modified to make this possible, then we would write legislation mandating gas stations to provide pumps that are exhaust pipe compatible.  Never mind if the act results in the car catching on fire when the gasoline hits the catalytic converter.  Never mind if the act goes against both the design of the pump and the design of the car.  Never mind if it really serves no purpose.  The fairest thing is to let him do it, and to provide a way for him to do it, if that is his wish.  The same argument is being made about homosexuality.  It’s destructive.  It goes against the design of the machinery.  It really serves no purpose.  The fairest thing is to condone it.  The honest thing is to call it what it really is, which is vile nonsense.

The trend is, to each his own, and while it is fairer to allow all people to go their own way, there often is no effort to discern the truth of the matter, that some ways are beneficial and meaningful, and others are destructive and meaningless.  It’s one thing to let others be who they are, but it’s not the same as turning a blind eye to the reality of what they’ve chosen to become.

Excusing versus Forgiving:

When someone hurts us, we say that the Christian thing to do is to forgive that person.  That’s true, in word, but sometimes people make the mistake of excusing the evil deed, thinking that they’ve done a virtuous thing in doing so.  We can blame it on his upbringing or his troubled past.  We can delve into the dark depths of his troubled psyche to understand what drove him to hurt us.  If it brings us to vow not to retaliate, then that is forgiveness, but not if we come to it by denying that a wrong was committed in the first place.  Extreme forgiveness is often mistakenly thought of as so completely overlooking a person’s misdeeds as to say it never happened, or that it was completely understandable.  It’s not really forgiveness.  If we excuse the deed, then we say that it’s okay, because he only acted that way because of some underlying factors.  The person is no longer an actor on the stage of life.  The person becomes just one more domino in the chain reaction of cause and effect, not a perpetrator to be held accountable for his actions, but a victim, or just a medium through which a chain of events happened to pass.  The bad deed becomes nothing more than an unlucky circumstance.  There is no longer anything to forgive, because no evil has been committed.  We become nothing but unfortunate victims to the cruelty of blind fate.

Hence, it is only possible to excuse a misdeed or to forgive it, but it is not possible to do both.  Yet, too many people equate one with the other.  They think that they are forgiving when they are really excusing.  Excusing sin involves no forgiveness at all.

Righteousness versus Self-Righteousness:

There are three types of people in modern society.  There are those who comprise the vast majority, those who occasionally act out of malice or playful indiscretion, but who are, essentially, good people.  Then there are those people who, unlike the rest of us, generally prefer to act badly by default.  We can feel free to scorn these individuals.  Then, there are the self-righteous people, who are unwilling to accept any sin, and who arrange their own lives to avoid these indiscretions at all cost.

I hope you disagree with all of this.  Non-religious people never use the word “righteous” in any meaningful way.  There was a brief time when it was used by some as a byword, like “cool” or “groovy,” but secular individuals never use the word, except to compound it into the term “self-righteous.”  When asked to distinguish between righteousness and self-righteousness, about the best that they do to explain is that righteousness is really being good, while self-righteousness is only thinking you’re good and condemning everyone who’s not as good as you, which makes you really bad.  Having said that, the closest that they can come to defining righteousness is equating it with being nice (not saying that anyone else is being unrighteous), and doing your own thing without hurting anyone else, which is just another way of being nice.  Their use of terminology blows the cover off of their lie.  They never use the word, because they don’t believe in the concept, in reality, that true righteousness is real and something worth striving for.

Christians are most often the victims of the term “self-righteous,” but Christians are the inventors of the term.  We, acknowledging our own inability to define and achieve righteousness, created the term of self-righteousness to identify those people who invent their own standard and attempt to, and sometimes even succeed in, achieving that standard.  What they achieve is not really righteous, nor is it particularly lofty.  About all it does is make them arrogant.  Hence, the secularist has the right idea in thinking that self-righteousness causes haughtiness.  However, the secularist has no concept of righteousness, the pursuit of God’s standard of righteousness, which no human can fulfill by his or her own power but can, with God’s help, develop habits in that direction.  The secularist has no concept of that, therefore all righteousness is self-righteousness.  There is no distinction between the two for someone who doesn’t understand their meaning.

One might argue, what’s wrong with pursuing a higher standard than one’s self?  Why not strive for something better?  Why should the pursuit of excellence be an insult?  One might argue that if faulty humans define righteousness for themselves, then the end result is not that humans will better themselves to reach it, but that the standard will be lowered to where people already are.  No one need aspire to anything better.  If you say you’re there, then you’re already there.  We’re all a bunch of dirty pigs rolling around in the same sty and the same mud.  The one who tries to leave, who takes a bath, makes the others feel dirty.  No matter how vile the deed or foolish the thought, if everyone else is doing it and thinking it, then it feels normal.  If even one person calls it what it is, he upsets the apple cart and makes us hate him.  If he strives for something better, then we insult him.  If he actually succeeds at it (Heaven forbid), we punish him.  If he starts to change the status quo, bringing others to his way of thinking, changing the definition of “normal,” then we kill him.

drainedsig





Death by Convenience

12 08 2012

You’re driving down a local highway in your Dodge Ram, and it’s raining.  We could argue about your choice in vehicles, but that’s not really important.  It just happens that a Dodge Ram is parked in a bad and annoying place right now, and I had the time and audacity to go outside and take its measurements, for want of a more amusing pastime.  Did you know that the side door is two and a half feet high, and four feet long?  You don’t care.  Of course you don’t care, because you’re too busy trying to steer through the rain.  It doesn’t help that your tires lost traction, and you barreled down an embankment right in front of a bridge, landing you in the river.  Naturally, your first inclination is to open the door and escape your rapidly sinking vehicle.  What’s that you say?  You can’t open the door?  Oh, yes, well, that brings us back to the dimensions of your door.  Did you know that water weighs about 62.4 pounds per cubic foot?  Please don’t yell at me; I’m only trying to help.

Well, fortunately for those of us who never found use for calculus beyond our college years, your door is roughly rectangular.  Otherwise, we’d have to go back and re-learn all that…stuff.  This should help in making the calculations simple.  With the waterline sitting just below the level of the side window, the average depth of the submerged part of the door is about a foot and a quarter.  Because water weighs 62.4 pounds per cubic foot, a depth of one and a quarter feet gives an average pressure of about 78 pounds per square foot (62.4 lbs/ft3 × 1.25 ft).  Because your door is four feet long and two and a half feet tall, giving you an area of 10 square feet, that pressure comes out to 780 pounds.  Fortunately, your hinge takes half of that weight, so you only need to push with the force of 390 pounds.  You can do that, can’t you?  You shouldn’t say those things!  Children could be listening!

If your truck were turned on its side, and you had four and one-third 180-pound men standing on the door, the effect would be the same.  At least, the effect of trying to open the door would be the same, not including the problems associated with hanging sideways.  Never mind the psychological effect of having that third of a man sitting on the door.  I think, now that I imagine it, if I had four men and a third of a man standing on the door of my overturned vehicle, I might consider staying inside and taking my chances with the water, but I digress.  Most people don’t have enough strength in their left arm and left leg to open a door at 390 pounds of force.  That’s about 860 kilograms, for the few of you out there who actually use the metric system…all 6.7 billion of you.  Well, your real problem is that your door opens outward, against the water.  If your door opened straight up, like a Lamborghini, then it wouldn’t be a problem, except for the electrical short-circuit preventing your door from opening at all.

Then, there’s the problem with your second avenue of escape, the side window.  Did you get the option with the motorized window?  You did?  Sorry to hear that.  Well, it was certainly nice while it lasted.  You push the up button, and the window goes up.  You push the down button, and the window goes down.  It’s so much more convenient than having to turn a crank.  Besides, people look at you funny when they get in your car and see that medieval thing hanging off your door.  Next thing they know, you’ll be going outside to start the car with a crank on the front of the grill.  Granted, it doesn’t do you much good, now.  The water shorted the circuit, and the window won’t go down.  It wouldn’t be so bad if your window happened to already be “rolled” down, but people usually do most of their sliding off of roads during storms and freezing weather, which is the least likely time for them to be driving with their windows rolled down.  Although, there was a guy whose door latch froze solid in cold weather, and the door wouldn’t stay closed unless he held it closed, so he drove around with his arm out the window, hanging on to the outside of the door to keep it from taking out a motorcyclist during a curve to the right.  That must have been fun for him, but you’re not him.  You had no problem getting the thing shut.  Now, you just have to get it open, and soon.

Blame the auto manufacturers.  All of their cleverness produced the unsafe situation.  In fact, ironic that it is, they would have needed to be less smart to do the smarter thing, which is to make you crank your own blasted window down.  Then, they would probably sell fewer cars, because the number of customers lost to competition would be less than the number of customers lost to the Susquehanna River (and others), if they had used the electric version.  I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but I bet it isn’t “Man, I’m glad I have electric windows.  They were so worth it!”  What’s that you say?  No, I can’t write that in my blog.  I’m trying to keep this PG-rated.

Well, we’ve killed so many of our own babies for the sake of convenience, that I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that we’d occasionally even kill ourselves for it.  Look behind you at the rear window.  Oops, I guess this model doesn’t come with a little rear window for you to attempt to squeeze your fat torso through.  If it had, then you’d still be stuck, because, for the sake of convenience, you may have dined at a few too many fast-food joints.  Oh, yeah.  I forgot.  You’re big-boned.  Well, it doesn’t matter, anyway, because I just looked outside and checked for myself.  You don’t have a little rear window.  What you really needed was a sunroof to escape through.  What’s that?  It would have been an electric sunroof?  Yes, I suppose it would have been, and if it had been a convertible, you wouldn’t have to get out and manually fold it back, either.  That would have been too much trouble.

I’m looking out my living room, now, and I’d say you’ve still got a few seconds to go.  I suppose I’ll call for emergency assistance.  I’d go out there and try to play the hero for you, but…it’s just so much more convenient to make a phone call and let someone else take care of it.

The moral of this story is this: if you’re going to drive a vehicle with electrically operated windows, then, for pity’s sake, do yourself a favor and take the trouble to buy a window breaker, and keep it with you and accessible (and hope a police officer doesn’t charge you with having a weapon within reach while driving).  Window breakers are razor-sharp diamond-edged double-bladed chisels, essentially.  You need them in most places on this continent, except, perhaps, southern California, where a “river” is typically nothing but a dry concrete channel.  However, if you happen to live in the city/ seasonal lake called Carson, then the storm drains are so solidly plugged by the convenience store trash of people who couldn’t bear the inconvenience of taking their own garbage home and putting it in the can, that every time it rains, you find yourself up to your neck in water, even if you stay on the road, then you might consider taking along not only a window breaker, but also a self-inflating life raft capable of holding you and whatever homeless indigent floats your way.  If you give me a ride, I’ll buy you a coffee as soon as it’s convenient.





The Human Wave, and Isometric Exercise

18 06 2012

I find myself in the weight room, curling my XXX pound weight, with a vigorous male next to me pumping the weights like he needs it to power his home.  I’m on my first rep, and he pounds out his first five.  I’m still on my first rep, and he pulls the weight another five, in rapid succession.  By the time he finishes with his entire set, I’m still on my first rep, and I can tell he’s waiting for me to finish so he can use the machine that I’m on.  I’m thinking the guy could go easier on the machine and save his joints if he’d replace the quick and powerful reps with more weight.  It has the exact same effect. I’d also like to explain to him the virtues of isometrics, but seeing that he already doesn’t understand simple physics, I’m reluctant to engage him on the matter of physiology.  After about fifty seconds, I finally finish my set, rewarding me with one and only one rep.  I raised and lowered the bar only once, and I’m fairly certain I got more exercise for having done so.  Raising the weight a great number of times makes a person feel that more work has been accomplished.  Holding the weight in place seems about as productive as putting it on a table and counting to ten.

This brings us to an important question raised by a fellow student in one of my classes in college, years ago.  Exactly, how is it that a table can hold a weight four feet off of the ground and utilize no energy, but a man cannot hold the same weight four feet above the ground for more than a few seconds without getting completely exhausted?  This question was asked in a physics class, by a business student.  I might add that the student had to be a genuine genius to have posed such an insightful question in a subject far removed from his own specialty.  The physics teacher did not answer the question.  He had no answer.  The question could not be answered strictly with physics math.  No energy is being expended on an object that remains stationary, no matter what holds it, human or table.  At least, that’s what the math says.  So the professor turned to the class and asked if there were any biology students who could answer the question, and I gave the answer.

I came across the question on the internet, once.  It was posted as a physics question.  Naturally, experts in physics were the primary respondents.  They all gave the same answer that no energy is expended in the effort to hold a barbell up, so long as it is not being raised higher.  This, of course is false.  Simply stated, the human muscle is incapable of holding anything in one position.  It contracts at a single speed, and it relaxes.  In order to contract slower, it must intersperse contraction with a little relaxation.  The muscle contracts and relaxes very rapidly, on a microscopic scale.  In order to hold an object in a stationary position, it must balance the contractions and relaxations very carefully, so that the muscle vibrates rapidly, back and forth on that microscopic scale.  In truth, the weight is never really being held in one place.  A human muscle can do no such thing apart from death and rigor mortis.  At death, when energy is deprived of the muscle, it locks in position, and then it could hold a weight in a stationary position with no added energy.

So, at the end of my set, I’m not sure whether to say that I’ve completed one rep or several million reps.  The second one sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  In the first ten weeks I doubled my strength.  I lift the weight to the optimal angle, where the muscle is at its strongest because the entire muscle is engaged.  For most joints, that’s about a ninety-degree angle.  For shoulders, it’s about a forty-five degree angle from the torso.  Some web sites suggest using the least advantageous angle, but I’m fairly certain they’re wrong.  Many web sites also suggest that holding the weight at one angle improves strength only at that angle, but I have not found this to be true.  Just to be on the safe side, I very slowly lower the weight at the end of the rep, in order to exercise a wider range.  To be fair, though, this method, called isometric exercise, has a disadvantage.  In real life, picking up an object requires a whole system of muscles, with different ones being employed in stages during its ascent.  Holding that weight in one place generally only uses a few muscles, and if a machine is involved, it might only use just one muscle per arm.  Despite my increased strength, I found my strength unchanged in real-life activities, so I had to be more careful about maintaining an exercise regimen that included more muscle groups, which amounted to significantly more time in the weight room.

The difference between a human and a table, or a human and any inanimate object, is that in every aspect the human body is thoroughly dynamic.  Muscles are either building or deteriorating.  Actually, they do both at the same time.  Bones are being built up and torn down at the same time.  Enzymes are being assembled and destroyed simultaneously.  Nothing in the body remains in any one stable configuration for any length of time, prior to death.  A rock, on the other hand, mostly maintains the same chemicals and chemical bonds throughout its existence, minus the superficial erosion.  A human body is never exactly the same at any two moments in time.

Similarly, a wave in the ocean is a dynamic thing.  Like the body, substances flow into and out of a wave.  The body of a wave is not composed of any set of atoms.  In fact, like the human body, the moment that new substances cease to enter it and old substances cease to leave it, it ceases to be what it was.  Stop breathing and you die.  Stop eating or defecating and you die.  The wave moves through the ocean, from one batch of water molecules to another, like the human body moves through life, from one batch of carbon-based molecules to another.  Hence, the question, “What is a human?” seems, at first glance, to resemble the question, “Is light a particle or a wave?”  A human is not a particle.  Instead, we are defined by what we do, rather than by what we are.  The moment we stop doing anything, we stop being human.  Likewise, the moment a wave stops doing anything, it stops being a wave.  We are not a thing.  We are an action.  We don’t lose part of ourselves with every exhalation.  The substances that leave us were only the temporary medium that supported the action.  Food, water and air are to us what water is to a wave, what air is to a sound wave.

With a human, there is no real stasis.  There is no such thing as doing nothing.  Only a corpse does nothing.  In fact, a corpse is really no different from any of the other substances we excrete daily.  It is merely a mass of substance through which the action once moved.

So a man who pushes against a wall is not doing nothing.  Despite having no net effect on the wall, he is still exerting energy, and he is still getting his exercise.  The man who raises and lowers a weight repetitively may think he is doing more than the one pushing against the wall, but not only does he still have no net effect, after doing and undoing his actions every time, but he actually gets less exercise, because he is not exerting maximal force, and his muscles are only passing through their optimal point, not hovering there.

As I’m exercising, though, I can’t help but imagine two worms munching on my corpse after the end of my life, and I can’t help but wonder if they’ll really appreciate the finer quality of meat that I’m giving them.

I shake my head to clear that thought.  I concentrate on getting those substances into my system and out of my system, that the wave may continue onward, growing steadily as it approaches the shore…

…where it will beat itself to death on the rocks and cease to exist.  Ah, nuts.  Pass me a donut.





The Target that Hit the Bullet

28 05 2012

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the suspect is sitting in the witness stand, giving testimony on his behalf.  The defense attorney, of course, is about ready to crawl under the table and do himself in, because he knows his client is guilty and, to make matters worse, exceptionally foolish.  With great animation and apparent self-confidence, the accused explains that he did not, in fact, cause the bullet to fly from his gun at the victim (may he rest in peace).  Rather, the victim, reckless man that he was, actually rode the rotation of the Earth straight into the bullet.  Because the gun was fired in a westerly direction, the bullet was essentially released in a stationary position, and the accused did nothing at all to propel that bullet toward that victim.  Even after the jury hands down its verdict, the defense attorney scuttles out of the room in shame and the bailiff begins to drag the man off to prison, the accused is still shouting at the top of his lungs that he is not to blame if someone else manages to impale himself on a stationary object left behind by him.  The argument, you see, is that the Earth is not stationary, but that it actually rotates.  In fact, it does so at considerable speed, even  to the point of negating the velocity of the bullet.  The jury, without even realizing it, makes their judgment based on the premise that the Earth is stationary and the universe revolves around it.  Otherwise, the bullet never moved, because the gun was fired toward the west.

After writing that last paragraph, I had to walk down the hall and get a cup of coffee.  Incidentally, the cost of coffee has gone up so much that I’ve resorted to doing something that I swore I’d never do again, which is to buy a generic brand.  So, as I’m walking back with the brew that will likely make me sick to my stomach, I might have wondered if I was walking in a westerly direction.  Actually, I did not worry about that at all.  The fact of my movement down the hall was, however, a matter of speculation.  You see, we judge the movement of an object by the change of its location relative to its surroundings.  I knew that I was walking down the hall, because the bigger picture, the whole rest of my environment, appeared to be moving with respect to me.  Excuse me, I mean to say that I was moving with respect to the rest of my environment.  In the early geocentric world, all things were judged with respect to the Earth, because the Earth and everything on it was the bigger picture.  If your location (or your bullet’s location) moved with respect to the Earth, then we would have said that you (or it) moved.  Of course, we’re wiser, now.  Our horizons have broadened, and we realize that there’s a great big universe out there.  The background, the bigger picture and the surrounding environment are now the universe, as a whole.  We say that the universe is stationary and the Earth is moving.  To say otherwise would require an even bigger picture by which to judge the movement of the universe.

A former coworker of mine was poring over the diagrams of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, the geocentric view, and he marveled at how stunningly elegant the designs were.  In truth, it took a great deal of math and mental stamina to follow and diagram the movements of the heavenly bodies according to a geocentric view.  I responded that it was, actually, possible to think of the universe in geocentric terms, but it required a great deal more math, and the description was a heck of a lot more complicated.  He looked at me with a startled expression, not quite that I was mad, but that I had challenged his most basic assumptions.  I hereby renounce any responsibility for his admission to a psychiatric ward shortly thereafter; it was a preexisting condition, and I had nothing to do with it.  We often mistakenly think of the heliocentric model as the simplest explanation of how the universe works, but we would be wrong.  It’s actually not an explanation of anything.  It is a description, but not an explanation.  The whole model depends, very heavily, upon an understanding of the nature of gravity.  While we know much about what gravity does, we know absolutely nothing about what it is.  Much speculation exists as to the cause of gravity, but there seems to be no good evidence, or even any bad evidence, to suggest that any of it may be true.  The rule of thumb (Occam’s razor) is that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  We don’t have any explanation, so we’ve settled with the next best thing, which is the simplest description.  Heliocentrism is the simplest description, because it uses the least math to tell us what to expect from moving objects in the universe.  The description for geocentrism is far more complicated than the description for heliocentrism.  Therefore, heliocentrism is deemed correct, and geocentrism is deemed a falsehood.

Yet, despite all of that, the jury, which claims to believe solely in heliocentrism, still convicts the man on a geocentric reasoning, that being the same geocentrism that they would in any other setting have called a complete falsehood.  While heliocentrism may be technically true, it is only practically true to astrophysicists.  While geocentrism may be technically false, it is practically true for everyone in every situation but space exploration.  In fact, a small amount of geocentrism exists even for an astronaut standing on the moon, because the Earth is still the center of his universe.  We still say that the sun rises, never giving the slightest care to the fact of the Earth’s rotation.  If I hit you, then you don’t care which direction I’m swinging and whether or not you technically hit my fist with your face.  Either way, I need to start running before you come to your senses.

As I’m running, two things at once become very clear to me.  The first is that I haven’t been getting enough exercise and will likely not outlast you, but this is largely irrelevant.  The second is that you really do care which way I swung my fist; you just don’t care which way it was in relation to the Earth or its rotation.  This brings us to an even more practical, yet highly incorrect, technically, view of the universe, which is an egocentric one.  Suddenly, I realize that I never called it a sunrise because of geocentric notions.  I don’t really care what it’s doing in Japan unless I happen to be in Japan.  I don’t look at a sunset and say, “Oh, look at the Indian sunrise!” because I neither know nor care what it happens to be doing for the Indians, or the Pakistanis, or the Iranians.  You, likewise, are not really shocked that I hit someone, or that I hit in a direction other than West (though, we all know by now that I ought to be forgiven if it happened to be West).  No, the only directions you know are relative to your own person.

When I was a baby, I thought the whole universe revolved around me.  When I got older, I learned on my own that it did not.  With education, I learned that the universe does not even revolve around the Earth.  With a higher education, a divine one, I learned that the universe does not even revolve around itself.  As previously stated, we judge the motion of an object by its change in location relative to its surroundings, the bigger picture.  Beyond the confines of this universe is God.  The universe is contained only within God.  Therefore, while egocentrism is more practical than geocentrism, which is more practical than heliocentrism, and while heliocentrism is technically more correct than either of them, theocentrism is the card that trumps them all.  When we were egocentric little babies, as some of us still seem to be, all things related to our own personal needs, yet the whole world was largely out of our control.  When we grew into geocentrists, as kids, we had a better handle on the world, but we still lacked maturity.  As heliocentrists, we of the adult world have maturity, but, like the baby, there still exists that outside element of our own destiny, which not only eludes us but utterly terrifies us.  The world may come to an end by collision with an asteroid, or the world may come to an end by environmental disaster, and no one can say otherwise.  When limited to heliocentrism, this way of thinking is true in a practical sense, though it is not technically true.  Practically speaking, it could happen, but in the big picture, things are not really so far out of control as that.  The universe does not revolve mindlessly around itself.  The relationship of I and the Earth is such that I revolve around the Earth.  The relationship of the Earth and the universe is similar, and the universe does not revolve around the Earth.  Likewise, God does not revolve around the universe, but if his attention is fixed on the Earth, and the Earth abides with God, then, from the biggest picture of all, the universe really does seem to revolve around the Earth, not that the Earth is really its focal point, but that the Earth happens to be aligned with the ultimate focal point.  The same could be said for human individuals.  Does the universe revolve around a person?  No, but it revolves around God, who may abide with that person, having a similar effect.  Looking at the universe as the biggest picture still convinces us that we are merely lost in space, but looking at God as the biggest picture, space becomes the moving object, while the human being remains stationary, so long as God is with him.  It’s a coincidental alignment.  People feel like the center of the universe and know that they are not, but still, the original impression might lie closer to the truth than realized.

This brings us to the problem of destiny.  The truth of the matter is that there are really two polar-opposite meanings of the word.  One is egocentric and the other is theocentric.  I could say that God has called me to be a prophet, or that I am destined to do something great, or that I am destined to take over the world, or that it is my divine mission to eradicate the world of an unwanted race of people.  All of these things, from pastor and prophet to emperor and mass-murderer, are a product of the egocentric meaning of destiny.  It’s a question of what God has planned for me.  God revolves around self.  Really, it’s a very practical outlook.  The world’s most successful people tend to live on that kind of a sense of destiny.  It’s also untrue.  It’s only good until things go wrong, or worse, when life turns out to be extra-ordinary, instead of extraordinary.  Where is the destiny, then?

Destiny as a theocentric view takes a different meaning.  No matter who you are or what you do, the world does not revolve around you, and the universe does not revolve around your planet.  You can rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, but it still ends up sinking.  You can institute environmental policies and struggle to save the Earth, but life on Earth still comes to an end, and the sun eventually winks out.  In the end, the bigger picture wins.  Earth trumps the human.  The sun trumps the Earth, and God trumps everything.

Destiny is a paradox.  When I say that I sawed a piece of wood in two, you might imagine that the log was held in place while I dragged the saw back and forth on it.  With destiny, the reverse is true.  I held the saw in place with a vise and dragged the wood back and forth on it.  Either way, the result is the same (except that the second way left me badly in need of a bandage).  Did you do the act because it was your destiny, or did you do it because you chose to?  Did you shoot the bullet at the victim, or did the victim fly eastward and hit the bullet?  In the end, no jury changes its mind about your guilt because of the higher understanding.  It was your destiny, and you chose to do it.  You shot the gun at the victim and he flew eastward at you, piercing himself on your motionless projectile.  Still, you are punished because you chose to do it.  You are punished because you shot the gun.  Galileo is in the restroom at the moment, and he isn’t here to defend you.

The screaming continues down the corridor, something about the speed of the Earth’s rotation as it relates to the circumference of that line of latitude, versus the speed of a bullet, but the door shuts and we hear nothing more.  All rise….





Hunting for Mister Hyde

30 04 2012

Occasionally, an event from my past comes back to haunt me.  I find myself wondering what the heck I was thinking when I chose to do what I did.  Perhaps, I’m too hard on myself.  Hindsight is twenty-twenty, in Technicolor, high-definition with surround-sound.  If the same event comes to mind every day for more than a couple of weeks, then I suppose it merits a little mention.

It was a night in a small parking lot next to the church’s annex building, following a scouting event.  The games we played under the floodlight on the lawn and that adjacent lot made for some of the nicest memories.  I was just a kid.  On the far side of that lot was a church bus, parked as close to a chain-link fence as it could be, and on the other side of that fence was a very tall hedge.  Between the bus and the fence was a popular hiding place for games of hide-and-seek or tag, or whatever else we invented.  Justin and I had arrived there to find some other kid already hiding there, but not for the purposes of any game.  He was weeping like his best friend had just died.

We asked him why he was crying and his reply was, “I hate my father!  I hate my !@#$ father!”  What followed was mostly expletives in regard to his dad, which, though emotive, did not really explain anything.

Now, I knew his father.  He was a very kind, gentle soul who worked with us boys in the scouting meetings, which had just finished.  There’s one man who never raised his voice for any reason, and I never saw him get angry, even when I really (brat that I sometimes was) gave him reason to be angry.  My first reaction was to tell the boy that he shouldn’t talk like that about his own dad.  Seriously, the man seemed a whole heck of a lot nicer than my own father.  I figured, the kid had just been punished for doing something wrong and was getting a little hot under the collar about it.

“You don’t know my father!” the kid raved.  “You don’t know what he’s like!  He’s evil!  I hate him!”

Rather than give ear to the rants of a child against his dad, I decided to walk away and let the kid have some time to cool off by himself.  The last thing I saw was my other friend, Justin, still talking to the kid.  The ultimate outcome to this situation, I strongly suspect, was the result of his taking the time to listen.  It certainly wasn’t because of anything I did.  Knowing now why that kid was crying, I wish I had been the one to listen.  At least someone did.

We will return to that in a moment.  Years later, but only a few days ago, I found myself among friends and the children of those friends.  Among them was a fellow that I consider entirely unique and gifted beyond measure in the way of being able to work with large groups of kids and, not only be able to keep them from wandering away, burning down the house or maiming each other, he actually keeps them entertained.  On top of all of that, he finds a way to teach them a thing or two in the process.  Scott is a highly affable, sanguine and altogether likable man.  Now, being a friend, I could pick up a few hints, here and there, about how this unflappable character, in public, could lose his temper and resort to yelling and meanness in the privacy of his own home.  I’ve never seen it.  The man has perfect self-control when he’s among friends.  I could probably insult him to his face, and he likely would not break from his good nature.

Then, when we were sitting around a table, and I said to his youngest daughter, “Your dad is such a nice guy.  Is he always this much fun at home?  Is he always this happy and easy-going?”

The daughter looked down at the table and to the right.  They say that when a person glances away and to the right that they’re looking for a way to lie or tell a story, and when they look away and to the left that they’re trying to remember something.  I’m not sure I believe this, but, so far, I have only found it to be true.  There was a tense moment and a delayed response, and everyone at the table seemed to be waiting for the answer.  Then, she gave this drawn-out and guilty response, “Yes.”  It was, of course, the only response a kid would give, with the dad sitting right there at the table.  She might have well said , “No,” as unconvincing as she was.

I figured this was probably a good time to do some damage control.  I had my answer, and, at the moment, I still seemed to have my friendship with Scott.  It was time to save the poor kid, so I told about life with my own father when I was growing up.

My own father had a fuse so short that he often flew into a fit of rage for no apparent reason at all.  I still find myself reliving those moments, replaying the events in my head, as I try vainly to discover what, if anything, my dad was so angry about.  I’ve seen him throw things and get into a snit over a single spoken word of no ill meaning.  What was his problem?  I still don’t know.  I thought it might be a byproduct of his diabetes.  I figured, whatever it was, his emotional constitution was such that he had no real control over his violent reactions.  So, as his son, I found myself making excuses for his behavior, that he was permitted to act this way because he was an adult, or because he just couldn’t help himself.  He, likewise, made excuses for himself, like, “I didn’t mean to throw the glass at your mother.  The air caught it and made it curve toward her,” as they’re picking small shards from her face.  Then, there was the time when he slammed his fist through the wall.  They patched that one up quick, thinking no one would notice.  My mom got embarrassed and red in the face when I asked her why a spot in the wall was smoother than the rest.  Actually, it was a good cover-up.  I only found it because I knew what I was looking for (other than trouble).  Over-all, though, my father was a great guy, if history could be rewritten to remove his outbursts.

There was one evening, though, when I began to think that his emotions were not really his master.  He was at the business of a client, working on a renovation project, when that client was clearly driving my father well past the breaking point.  The client seemed to think he knew more about my father’s work than my father did.  I could feel the anger building up inside of my dad, and I thought for sure he’d let loose on the guy, any second.  At home, he went into a rage over far less.  The man bossed my dad around and even fired him, and my dad took it all quite graciously and left fully in control of his wits.  Apparently, complete strangers are afforded more grace and mercy than loved ones and family, especially when money is involved.

In another incident, with a number of friends and our family seated at a table in a Mexican  restaurant, a woman told my father, “Vic, you are the gentlest, mildest man I know.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lose your temper.”  I’m glad I wasn’t drinking anything at the time, because I would have sprayed it all over everyone.  My father didn’t correct her error.  I couldn’t believe anyone would say that about the man.  He was, positively, the most temperamental person I knew.  It was then that I fully realized the extent to which he managed to hide the darker part of his nature from the rest of the world.  No one outside of our household saw him the way that we did.

Two weeks was the magic number.  Actually, to be precise, it was thirteen days.  That was the length of time a person had to live under his roof to see him lose his temper.  My brother went to college and came back for the summer.  On his return, he was treated gently, like any other outsider.  Thirteen days later, the firework stand opened up, so to speak.  He returned home after his wife left him, and my father treated him sympathetically for about thirteen days.  Then, I wondered if my brother was better off taking abuse from his estranged wife.  Now that I’m my own man, I never see him lose his temper.  I’m tempted to think that he finally reformed himself, but, then, I haven’t stayed under his roof for that long in a very long time.  After thirteen days, I might see Doctor Jekyll turn to Mister Hyde.

A person’s family gets a strange and unwanted insight into his true nature.  It’s the paradox that the ones who love us most get treated with the least patience and forbearance, the least gentleness and the least politeness.  For me, it was a little of the reverse.  I’m a little sociopathic that way.  I had to learn to treat friends and acquaintances with some of the kindness that I always showed my own family.  I strive to be Doctor Jekyll and Mister Jekyll, and, with friends and others, I always find myself hunting for Mister Hyde.  It’s not that I’m trying to bring out the bad in them or to condemn them, it’s just that, as a friend, especially as a close friend, I feel the responsibility to hold people accountable.  In American culture, especially more now, with the rise of technology, people expect a greater deal of distance between them.  No one ever digs too deeply into the personal affairs of others, even friends, even close friends.  What hides in the darkness never comes to light.  Evil remains safe within the walls of a home.  A father is the dungeon keeper of his home, and his wife and kids are the inmates.  People don’t dig.  Mister Hyde is never found.

In our time, “privacy” is our banner, but what we really champion is secrecy.  Privacy does nothing to hide the facts of the matter.  For example, no one doubts (I hope) what happens between my wife and I in the privacy of our bedroom.  It goes without saying.  It’s not a secret.  However, that doesn’t mean people can enter our home at will.  No one is invited to watch (good grief, now that would be awkward, wouldn’t it?).  Secrecy is the sort of intercourse that happens between people when it really ought not to.  It’s what we don’t want people to know about, and usually for good reason.

That kid hiding behind the bus was a victim of secrecy.  His father was in the regular habit of raping him and his brother.  Mister Hyde was hunted down and thrown into prison, where one can only wonder with horror what befell him.  I did not discover the crime, because I did not look.  Someone else found him out.  Since then, I’ve learned to hunt for Hyde.  Therefore, it is without shame that I look for clues to the inner workings of families that I care about.  I’m not going to leave that kid crying behind the bus again.

It is better to uncover those dark secrets while there is still time to act.  People can take their secrets to the grave, but they cannot keep them there.  In the end, all secrets will be made known, and every dark deed, every thing done in private, will be made known to all the world on the Last Day.  God promises (or threatens) it.  It will happen.





Sword of Damon Cleese

26 04 2012

[fiction]

Damocles was, naturally, quite enthralled with the prospect of standing in as archon of the day.  Five servants attended him in attiring himself for the evening feast.  It would have been six servants, but the sixth servant was Damocles, himself, and the ruler with whom he had traded places appointed himself to the role of waiting on tables.  It seemed that a direct and literal trade of roles was out of the question.  The real archon still had a job to do after this charade was over, and he still had a reputation to go with it.

Then, it was time.  Two heralds preceded him into the hall, and a train of attendants followed.  The doors opened, and everyone stood, as though for the bride at a wedding.  He appeared before them in his lavender robes, with real gold thread woven into elaborate patterns of what probably was supposed to be olive branches.  Stately, he walked up to the dais and took his place at the table.  Just before sitting, he had a second thought and readjusted the positioning of the salt boat.  Then, he sat, and the rest of the assembly followed.  He patted the arms of his chair with great satisfaction.  Gingerly, he leaned back into the seat, as though the back might give way at any second.  There, in the front row, instead of serving appetizers, was the real archon, Dionysus the Second, sitting on a bench and smiling at him with great satisfaction.  Had the roles been actual, Damocles would have ordered him beaten for his insubordination.  Apparently, the archon had no intention of keeping up more than half of the bargain.  At least he was dressed down for the occasion.  Dionysus locked eyes with him in a hard, unfaltering stare, until Damocles had to look away.

To Damocles’ right sat the wife of the archon, sitting as far from him as room would allow, folds forming in her neck as she held her head back like an adder ready to strike.  To his left sat the archon’s daughter, leaning away from him to talk in low tones with a friend, while surreptitiously hiding her face from him with a hand or a linen head scarf.  Opportunities for lively conversation were lacking.  Near the other end was a friendly cousin of Dionysus, with whom Damocles had chatted often.  He called out the man’s name, and the man sat there, ignoring him, staring down at the table top.

Damocles drummed his fingers on the table with irritation, until a nervous adolescent servant girl arrived with his dinner upon a silver plate.  He tried to graciously accept her service by thanking her, but she gave him a worried look in return, and her eyes, ever so briefly, glanced up toward the ceiling and then down again.  He watched her retreat, and he noticed, again, that the archon was giving him the cold hard stare.  There seemed to be meaning in his look.  Damocles had learned to read what people were trying to say by their looks, especially when there was something unusual about it.  He struggled to understand the stare of Dionysus, until he realized that it wasn’t a stare to give meaning, but it was a stare to hide meaning.  The man was fixing his gaze in order to avoid looking at something else.  He recalled the server glancing up, quickly, and he realized that she was either trying to tell him something, or else there was something up there that she was trying very hard not to look at.

Up above him, Damocles caught a glimmer of something metallic catching the light of the fire that burned in braziers about the room.  Then the object turned and became dark.  Then it turned and caught the light again.  A moment of horror fell upon him, and he dashed his wine and food to the ground in his scramble to get out from under the thing.  At a safe distance, he looked up and saw that a very large sword, possibly the precursor of what would later be known as a falchion, a sword that could double as an axe, seemed to hover high over his seat, suspended point-down by nothing but the air, itself.

“What the…?!  How…?  For the love of life, somebody take that thing down!” shouted the horrified Damocles.  He looked over at the archon, and saw a smile beginning to curl upward the corners of his mouth.  “How did you do that?”

“Don’t worry, Damocles,” said Dionysus, “I assure you, it’s very securely held in place by a single horse hair.”

Almost whimpering, the distraught Damocles asked, “Were you trying to kill me?”  It’s an important question, because if the archon wishes to kill someone, he usually gets what he wants.

“Perhaps,” Dionysus replied, coldly.  “It’s just that when you came in here flattering me like the sycophant that everyone knows you are, I felt the need to teach you a lesson.  You think the life of a wealthy man is secure and full of every happiness, but it’s not.  The more I have, the more I have to protect.  The more power I exert, the more people want to kill me.  I couldn’t let you experience all of my wealth and pleasure without giving you a sense of the danger, could I?  You wanted to know what it’s like to be me.  Even though we traded roles, no one would ever try to kill you, because you still aren’t really the archon around here.  If an assassin walked through that door right now, he would still be out to kill me, not you.  So, I added a little spice to your experience.  You want to be an archon?  Okay then!  An archon you shall be!”  Then, he called to a servant, “Take it down.  I want Damocles to have it, so he’ll remember.”

Damocles got his sword and continued to be a servant in the house of his ruler, and Dionysus went back to being a ruler, ever mindful of the constant threat that comes with having what other people covet.  By the way, does anyone know which of the two lived longer?  Perhaps Dionysus was wrong and outlived the other by several years, due to an unfortunate plague.  Perhaps he was right and died a few years earlier.  Both have been dead for thousands of years, now, so the difference in their respective times in the grave amounts to about one percent or less.  They’ve both been dead for maybe two and a third millennia, and one wonders that they ever discussed how one might be likely to die one or two decades earlier.  The difference is negligible.  Even the entire kingdom is entirely dead.  Even their lineage is lost.  The corpse of Damocles has been no safer than the corpse of Dionysus for more than a couple thousand years, already.

It’s really not just a problem for the rich, though.  Our king, God, has set us up in much a similar situation, wherein he watches us pursue and enjoy riches for a time, with the threat of our mortality ever hanging over our heads.  We all have a certain consciousness of it.  For some, it’s a jeopardy that causes us to cast all to the floor in disdain.  Who cares about such things with death barely suspended over us?  For others, it is merely the aging process, a commonplace thing that everyone experiences.  If cancer were universal, then they would be calling that a commonplace process, also.  Perhaps it is time to illustrate the extraordinary life of death, the unnatural nature.

Therefore, we shall extend this tale.  Besides, I concocted the tale years ago when I was just a kid, and it’s still bouncing around in my head.  I might as well let it out, so here it is.

Half a world away, thousands of years later, a similar sword, or perhaps the same sword, appeared once again, floating in the middle of the air.  It was first discovered by a couple of farm boys on a breezy, sunny day.  The way it caught the sunlight acted as a beacon, drawing them near.  This time, there was no horse hair to suspend it.  It hovered about four feet from the ground, over a field, near a stand of oak trees, pointing menacingly toward a nearby town, which will remain unnamed.  The two boys studied it circumspectly, doubtlessly feeling a little intimidated by it.  At first, they tried throwing rocks at it, which is, for some strange reason, always the first thing boys seem to do with most foreign objects.  They probably threw rocks at the first cat they saw, the first bird, the first rusty can and the first girl (a sister, of course).  The sword was unyielding, and they tired of the game quickly.  Next, they tried touching it, then pushing it and hanging on it.  With all of their efforts, it would not budge in the slightest.

The sword was first discovered at about noon by two kids who should have been in school.  Four hours later, the first adults heard of it.  Twenty-four hours after that the first adult  believed enough to have a look at it, when the number of kids who had seen and told of it reached critical mass, which is to say that once every kid in town said that they had seen it an adult finally took them seriously.  Two weeks later, someone from the local news agency heard of it enough times on a slow news day to go out and have a look.  By the evening news, the story had gone viral, and the whole world knew about it.  By dawn of the next day the sword was gone without a trace.

Two days after the sword’s disappearance, the world forgot about it.  Two months later the locals stopped talking about it.  It wasn’t gone long before someone found it again, on the other side of the town, twenty miles away, pointing toward the next town on the highway.  The poor woman who discovered it was lucky enough to have survived by swerving hard at the last second when its golden hilt glinted in her headlights in the predawn hours.  The sword was back on the world stage.  Experts arrived from all over the world to give opinion on it.  Someone brought a tractor to see if it could be moved by any force, which it couldn’t.  The thing just hovered there, indestructible and absolutely immovable.  On its blade was some foreign script, which, when transliterated, said, “mene, mene.”  A quick internet search (insidiously cited by the press as an expert analysis, though it was none other than that infamous site known as Wikipedia) showed that it derived from an ancient phrase, “mene, mene, tekel upharsin,” meaning, roughly, “your days are numbered, and your empire will be divided and given to the Persians.”  By itself, “mene, mene,” only meant, “your days are numbered.”  Of course, no one knew what it meant.  Some doomsday addicts made a great deal out of it.  Screenwriters were already brainstorming it into a full-feature film.

So there it hovered, two miles from the nearest town, pointing directly at that town. The local hotels flooded with curious visitors, and the local residents cleared out as quickly as they could.  Clearly, the town was cursed.  No one knew what the sword was about, but many feared it.  One man, in particular, watching the news from his rented room in the town, did know what the sword was about, and he feared it more than anyone.  After two restless nights and a third that left him swimming in his own sweat, he packed his bags and hit the road yet again.  That night, the sword disappeared from sight and was not found for a few days.

A door to a bar opened, and an eighty-year-old man staggered into the room looking like he could just as easily ask for cyanide as ask for a beer.  He plopped his disheveled self onto a stool and regarded the patron next to him.  “I don’t know why, but it seems like the only place to meet people and talk about things is a bar,” he said.

“That’s not true,” said the other patron, a dumpy middle-aged man who had only just begun his binge for the evening.  “There’s always the confessional booth at a Catholic church.  Then, you have internet chat rooms, brothels, orgies and… I forget what else.”

“Now, I don’t feel so bad,” said the old man.  “Maybe I’ll try a confessional booth, next.  Actually, that might not be a bad idea.”

“Now, don’t go running off too soon,” said his new friend.  “I have ears, too.  Besides, I haven’t heard any good gossip in weeks.”

So the old man told him his story.  Damon Cleese, as he turned out to be, had put a great deal of effort in his younger years toward uncovering a certain cache of stolen treasure.  His friend, Danny Nice, had figured that trains of stage coaches in the area had been robbed all within a ten-mile radius of a craggy region, back during the rough days of the wild west.  The band of robbers responsible had been caught in a trap, possibly because of their predictable pattern, and all of them went to the grave, taking the secret of their stash with them.  Their stolen goods were never recovered,  but a simple analysis of terrain and distance suggested that they probably did have a hideout in the area, from which a person could ride for half a day or less, rob a wagon train and get back by dusk, without overburdening the horses.  Hence, the stolen goods must be stashed somewhere in a narrowed area, and because they were never recovered, those stolen goods must still be there.

With two months of searching, Damon and Danny finally found the cache of goods in a cave, just sitting there waiting for the return of their robber barons.  Most of it was in gold coins and moldy notes.  There were a few rusty guns and other items of interest, but the thing that caught Danny’s attention the most was a shiny, heavy sword with a gold hilt encrusted with jewels.  They counted out the coins and divided the spoil evenly, but a small boulder, not much bigger than a large sow, fell from the ceiling of the cave and landed on Danny’s arm, crushing it badly.  Damon rushed to his aid, rolling the boulder off and wrapping the poor arm in a sling and a poultice.  Danny immediately went into shock, shaking and pallid.  His friend covered him in a blanket and did his best to make him feel better.

By the next day, Danny was feeling well enough to attempt a ride back to the nearest town on horseback.  They took as much of the loot as the horses could reasonably hold, and they headed off down the trail.  A mile down the trail, Danny began complaining of his aches and pains, and eventually he became too weak to remain on a horse.  He noted that his urine was strangely brown, and later he found he had no more urine of any kind.

“Damon,” Danny told his companion, “I don’t know why, but I think I’m losing more than just my arm.  I can’t pee anymore, Damon.  I’m a sick man.  You need to go for help.”

Instead, Damon insisted that they stay where they were for a while, to allow for him to convalesce.  Truth be told, he was afraid of leading rescuers too near the rest of the stash and having to explain how the injury occurred.  By the time they returned, there might not be anything to return to.  The days whiled by, and Danny got worse.  Finally, Damon agreed to go for help, but Danny insisted that it was already too late.  He was about to die.

“Forget about dividing the stash,” Danny said, “You can have the whole thing.  Just promise me you’ll bury me with the sword.  Just give me the sword and you can have everything else.”  Then, he died.

At first, Damon tried to carry the body back, but in the heat of the day it began to smell bad.  He couldn’t just leave it for the vultures, so he opted to bury Danny where he was.  After digging the hole, he was about to place the sword over the body, when he began to think about it pragmatically.  In truth, the dead body could never care what happened to the sword, and it was, after all, quite beautiful and would probably fetch a couple thousand dollars, should he choose to sell it.  Why bury a perfectly good relic like that?  It would be a shame!  So, he kept the sword and buried the body.

“Seems reasonable to me,” said the dumpy man at the bar.  “I would’ve done the same.”

“Anyone would have,” said Damon, “but it would have been a terrible mistake.”

As Damon was turning to repack his things, he heard the voice of his old companion speak to him from the grave.  “I said you could have everything, didn’t I?”

Damon turned around and saw the sword hovering there, pointing right at him.

“Take the whole thing, I said.  Just bury me with the sword, I said.  Was it really too much to ask?  I couldn’t have just this one thing?  Are you so bent on wealth that you would rob a dead friend?!” the voice scolded in rage.

With that, Damon jumped on his horse and rode away as fast as he could.

“Ah, I see.  You’re saying this all has to do with that freaky hovering sword that’s been on the news lately,” the other patron said with a slight slur to his words.

“Yes, that’s the one.  That’s Danny’s sword,” said Damon.

“So why don’t you go back and bury it?” suggested the patron.

Damon eyed the man skeptically.  “I don’t know, but I think it would kill me.  Would you try to take a weapon from a ghost?”

“Have you tried an exorcist?” the patron offered.

Just then, someone stormed into the room, shouting, “The sword!  I just found it, about a mile up the road, pointing this way!”  The bar cleared in seconds, everyone being in a hurry to go find the sword or to get far away from it as fast as possible.

Damon gripped the edge of the bar tightly and whispered, “It’s getting closer.  It’s almost here.”  He looked to the side and found his companion still sitting there.  They and one unconscious fellow in the back of the room were the only ones left.

“Interesting,” remarked the other, “So this thing has been following you all these years.  How long has it been?”

“Fifty-five years,” Damon answered without even having to calculate it.

“Fifty-five years?!  The blasted thing sure is taking its time, isn’t it?  How old are you, anyway?” asked the other patron.

“Eighty years, last June,” replied Damon.

The other patron roared with laughter.  Damon was obviously upset by his reaction. “Sir,” said the other, “You’re not going to die by the sword!  You’re going to die of old age!”

Damon got to his feet and replied in anger, “You might think this is funny, but once it’s done carving me up, it might come for you, even if I have to haunt it myself!”  Then he stormed out.

That night was the worst of his life.  The mysterious hovering sword had, apparently, been covering miles and miles of uninhabited and rugged terrain, slowly approaching him unnoticed for all of these years.  Finally, it happened upon civilization, and nothing anyone did to the sword could stop it, and nothing Damon did to get away from it could increase that distance.  After leaving the bar, he journeyed for five hours to a roadside motel, where he attempted what he figured would be his last chance at sleep before the sword arrived.  Somewhere out there, a mile away or less, the sword was still coming.  He could only guess how much time he had left.

Damon miscalculated.  The sword, like death, does not come by a human schedule.  We can see it coming and estimate the end to some degree, but sometimes it arrives much earlier than anticipated, and it makes no apology for its impolite punctuality.  The door to the room crashed open, split down the middle, with the blade shining in the moonlight that streamed through the window opposite the door.  Damon screamed in abject terror.  Even then, it just hovered in place, stationary, like it never intended to advance further.  The movement was slow, like the movement of shadows cast by the sun.  If Damon moved to the other side of the room, though, it repositioned itself quickly to maintain its aim at his heart.  Needless to say, it was a long night, and he could not get past the sword and reach the door.  Every time he moved, it cut him off.

By dawn of the next day, the sword was less than an inch from his flesh, and he found himself seriously imploring to God for his salvation.

The reader, at this point, will be happy to note that the poor man did not, in fact, die from the sword.  Rather, he died of a stroke, a complication of his old age, just before the sword could hurt him, and the sword had nothing to do with it.  What a relief!  All of this time, Damon feared what would happen when the sword reached him, but instead of dying, as he thought, he died before it could happen.

[/fiction]

Ah, but a mysterious hovering sword is so much more fearsome, is it not?  If we all had hovering swords threatening to take our heads off at every turn, we might consider it a fact of life, and, instead, be more terrified by death of old age.  On a serious note, though, the fact is simply that whatever ultimately kills us, that thing and its destiny are on a determined and unstoppable collision course for our lives.  Whatever it is, it definitely exists, and it will definitely get here in due time, and it will definitely kill us.  Cheery, isn’t it?  The real sickness, then, is not that we fear death, but that some of us are so consumed by our present riches that we do not notice the steady progression of doom.  Thousands of years from now, no one will care what riches we owned, no one will know who we were, and nothing will matter about the fact of our former existence.  All that will matter is whether this human soul, the thing that some people are dumb enough to insist does not exist, is in a place far better or far worse than it is now.

Salvation from death is not an issue.  There is no salvation from death.  It’s the death after the death that we might resist.  This life is just a temporary endeavor, more like a game.  We pass through it briefly, to serve a temporary purpose, and then we enter the afterlife, where the story really begins.  Thanks for playing this game with me, and I hope you find what you came here for, even if it isn’t what you think you came here for.