Monday, July 23, 2012

Crazy Thoughts From the Beach

"Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint." - Mark Twain

Late last night I was standing on the picnic table on the back porch of the beach house my family's renting for the week, looking out over the ocean. And I thought about just how freaking amazing the world is.

The universe is enormous. There are stars 13 billion light years away. We live here. We live on a tiny little insignificant planet somewhere in the middle of it all and nothing we do really matters in the grand scheme of things but doesn't that make it so much better?

If I'm eating a really delicious bagel, no one else cares. It matters so little, but I'm sure as heck enjoying that bagel a lot. So who cares if it doesn't matter? I and thousands of other people are eating bagels that are good and getting pleasure from that. The simple fact that you can eat a bagel and it can make you happy is awesome.

I don't understand why it bothers people to think about how all of our emotions are just biochemical processes, because doesn't that make it that much more amazing? A few chemicals floating around in your brain can make you feel so wonderful or so miserable and how does that even work? How can chemicals make you feel so strongly? I don't know. I don't know, but I love it.

And there's so many people. I looked to my left and saw another island all lit up, and there was a couple walking along the beach with flashlights and they all have thoughts and lives and people they know and people they like and I have no idea what all of it is because we don't know each other at all and have entirely separate experiences of life except maybe they saw me standing on a table and laughing at the sky and thought I was crazy. 

Which, you know, would be a fair assumption.

I have a friend who says the only reason to believe in God is if that belief makes you happy.
This is why I don't.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


"I haven't the slightest idea how to change people, but I still keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out." - David Sedaris

I just got back from a week of intense philosophy-learning at debate camp in Oklahoma (hate Kant, love Rousseau), and that was very interesting and full of adventures, but I really want to talk to you guys about one of the people I met there for completely unrelated reasons.

In fact, I met him because I was sitting on a table in a laundry room attempting to play Oblivion with a track pad.

His name is Hazel (but all of the college students call him Pops), and he's the head of security (or something like that) at the university I stayed at. He's also a retired pilot who fought in Vietnam, and has been all over the world. He wasn't busy doing much of anything so he decided to hang around and tell us stories about his life, local history, and dumb college students he's had to help.

One of them honestly didn't know what an elevator was, or how one would go about getting to the third floor of a building. I ask you.

My one friend's been joking with me a lot this week saying "oh my god, your life is a YA novel." This part actually sort of was. He's a super old, knowledgeable guy who's seen practically the whole world and looks a little like Morgan Freeman and was totally willing to just hang out and tell us stories and is basically just fantastic. It was so cool.

And then we saw him again this morning as we were once again sitting around in the laundry room waiting for our ride to the airport and he came in to do his morning ritual of putting ten bucks into the vending machine to get back dollar coins to put into his Savings Tin Can.

I now have five dollar coins in my wallet.

He also taught us how to identify drag queens by looking at their hands (biological males' middle fingers are apparently proportionally longer?), and is the only politically correct Oklahoman I met on the whole trip. Or at least, the only one who cares about being PC.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Universe in a Single Atom, by HH The Dalai Lama

"The most important point is to ensure that science never becomes divorced from the basic human feeling of empathy with our fellow beings. Just as one's fingers can function only in relation to the palm, so scientists must remain aware of their connection to society at large. Science is vitally important, but it is only one finger of the hand of humanity...What matters above all is the motivation that governs the use of science and technology, in which ideally heart and mind are united." - The Dalai Lama

Welcome to the 2012 installment of "Olivia Reads Nonfiction Over the Summer and then Blogs About It." Unlike last year when it was all neuroscience, yesterday at the library I found The Universe in a Single Atom.

It's not about reconciling religion with science. The Dalai Lama does not find that terribly interesting. Instead, he operates under the assumption that they can be, and then gets on with his book. Instead of looking at Buddhism through a scientific lens, he looks at science through a Buddhist lens--how does science relate to things that Buddhism and those that practice it care about?

His tutors didn't bother with science when he was growing up, but in his teens he went on an Epic Quest (my words, not his) to learn, using his station to visit some of the greatest minds in their respective fields who were willing to spend a few days talking him through important concepts.

This book is kind of fantastic. It's well-written to the point that the mere act of reading is enjoyable, and contains all of the excitement and wonder that actual scientists got over a long time before they got published. His Holiness is incredibly humble--always stopping to praise his teachers and friends-- and even more genuine in his thoughts and curiosity. It makes me smile.

The religion vs. science rivalry is something I got over a long time ago, but it's still a dichotomy that I find interesting, so it's nice to look at both of them at an entirely different angle. It's not about science's place in Buddhism, or any other religion. It's about science's place in life, and in humanity-- why we should care about it, as well as why it can't and shouldn't be the center of everything.

I'm only about 30 pages in, but I love it to pieces. You should read it.