Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some Facts About Space, pt 2: Stars

So here’s part two of my exciting facts-about-space blog! This time I’m going to focus on things a bit further out there: some of the really crazy stuff you may not have known about our neighboring stars.

A Neutron Star the size of a pea would weigh about as much as a small mountain.
There are many different types of stars. Neutron stars—which are actually the “leftovers” of massive stars after they go supernova—have the peculiar trait of being the most dense of all star types. Of course, Neutron Stars don’t come as small as the size of a pea, but that’s just to give you an idea of how heavy they are. Talk about a jawbreaker…

Neutron Stars have an average diameter of only 24 kilometers.
Yep, that’s a radius of only about 15 miles. In other words, the entire star would fit inside of just about any major city you’ve ever been to.

The smallest main-sequence (i.e. “normal”) star we know of is only about 20% larger than Jupiter.
It’s called OGLE-TR-122, and it’s barely big enough to even be considered a star. That poor little runt star—it doesn’t even get a proper name, just a “designation.”

The largest star we know of is bigger than the orbit of Jupiter around our sun.
It’s called NML Cygni, and it’s about 1,650 times larger than our sun. Think about it this way: we haven’t yet been able to send a human as far as Jupiter. If we lived on a planet the size of NML Cygni, it’s quite possible that we still wouldn’t even be able to travel all the way around it (like we can do relatively easily with Earth). And keep in mind: that’s the largest star we know of yet…

The oldest object in space that we know of is about 13.2 billion years old.
It’s a star called HE 1523-0901, and it lives here in our friendly neighborhood Milky Way Galaxy. To put it in perspective, the average lifespan of a star usually reaches only 10 billion years old. Also, considering that our universe is only about 13.75 billions years old, HE 1523-0901 has been around since almost the very beginning of the universe itself. But if this great-grandpa of stars wants to sit you on its lap to tell you war stories, don’t let it—though it’s smaller than our sun, it’s still a burning ball of gas and nuclear reactions, after all.

The nearest star to us is Proxima Centauri…
…but it’s still 4.24 light years from Earth. Then again, in another 26,700 years, it will have moved closer to us, and only be about 3.11 light years away. Who knows?—maybe by then we’ll have figured out a way to travel that far.

Polaris is the North Star now, but it won’t always be.
We refer to Polaris as the “North Star” because it sits almost due north from our celestial north pole. But with the way the heavens are turning, around the year 3000, it will no longer sit in that position. By then, another star named Gamma Cephei will be our new north star. Hopefully this won’t confuse our sailors too much when the time comes…

When the star Betelgeuse “dies”/goes supernova, the explosion will likely be bright enough to see in the middle of the day.
In fact, scientists believe it will be visible by naked eye in the middle of the day for the duration of several months. The unfortunate thing is that this could happen anytime within the next million years—so we probably won’t actually get to see it.

Black Holes aren’t holes.
Calling them “holes” is way off base. What we call “black holes” are actually stars. Yes, stars—like the Sun, like Polaris, like all those little dots in the night sky that we arrange into constellations.

Every star and planet has something called an “escape speed.” This is the speed that an object needs to be traveling in order to shake itself free of that star or planet’s gravity (and, therefore, be able to leave the star or planet). That said, a black hole is a star whose escape speed is faster than the speed of light. That’s why we think of them as vacuums—once something falls into a black hole’s field of gravity, it can never leave again. And that’s why they’re black—even light can’t leave the star, so it would “appear” perfectly dark.

Astronomers believe that there may be such a thing as “white holes” as well.
Though a white hole hasn’t been discovered yet, astrophysical equations imply that these oddities exist somewhere out there. As you might suspect, they act pretty much like the opposite of a black hole: rather than not allowing anything to leave their field of gravity, white holes will constantly be shedding everything from itself, to the point that nothing at all (not even light) would be able to enter the star. Talk about the ultimate extrovert…

* * *

That’s all I’ve got for you this time around (there may or may not be a part 3 to this…). Of course there are thousands of other cool tidbits that I haven’t shared, with many more facts appearing every day. But—hey—I’ve done enough research for you already: maybe it’s time for you to do some investigating of your own. ;)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Facts About Space to Make You Feel Better About Doomsday, pt 1

Our Solar System

In light of all this “Doomsday” talk that has been building up to today, I thought it’d be nice to show that space isn’t all bad and scary—there are some pretty fascinating things about it too.

So here you go, just a small collection of random facts about space that are some of my personal favorites. This time around (yes, there will be a “next time around”), I’m going to focus just on things within our own solar system:

Our solar system has 13 planets.
You were probably always taught that we had 9 planets. Then you heard Pluto was downgraded to a “dwarf planet.” Because of this, some people like to say our solar system now has 8 planets (poor Pluto—he’s still a planet, even if just a runt of one). But Pluto is not the only dwarf planet. There are four others aside from it: Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris (in fact, it was the discovery of Eris that prompted astronomers to redefine the term “planet,” ultimately downgrading Pluto). And no, I didn’t make up those names. They really are just that odd.

Ceres is located between Mars and Jupiter.
All of the dwarf planets are located at the far end of our solar system except for Ceres, which exists in the asteroid belt separating the first four planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) from the outer planets (Jupiter and beyond). In fact, Ceres was originally considered an asteroid until the term “dwarf planet” was invented and its status was upgraded. Congratulations, Ceres!

“Earth” isn’t actually the name of our planet.
Well, okay, I guess that depends on how you look at it. Really though, “Earth” is an astronomy term that really just means “planet.” We call our planet “Earth” because—well, let’s face it: who has the right to name a planet that 7 billion people share?

…in fact, the Sun’s “name” works the same way.
“Sun” is just a term for a star that sits in the middle of a solar system (keep in mind some stars don’t have solar systems—so those stars are not suns). That’s why people call it the Sun instead of just Sun (without the in front of it)—because it’s a title, not a name. If you’re ever faced with the Sun though, try to refer to it as respectfully as possible. He’s very big and fiery.

…and the same with the Moon.
A moon is something that orbits a planet, and I guess the early astronomers were just lazy about naming our moon. Many planets have moons (some even have several moons)—most of which have cool names instead of just titles. Our poor little satellite.

400 is an important number for the Sun and the Moon.
You already know that the Sun is much larger than the Moon. But you wouldn’t guess that just by looking at the sky with your naked eye. This is because, though the Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon, the Moon is about 400 times closer to the Earth than is the Sun—making them appear to be the same size. What a happy coincidence.

The Moon is tidally locked with the Earth.
This means that the way the moon’s gravity and the earth’s gravity interact causes the moon to remain stationary in relation to the earth. In other words, every time you look up at the moon, you’re looking at the same side of it—no matter what time of day or night it is, or where in the world you are. This is where the phrase “dark side of the moon” comes from: because we never see the other side of the moon from the Earth. Maybe Pink Floyd was on to something…

Jupiter has 67 moons.
That pretty much sums it up. Just…wow.

One of Jupiter’s moons is likely covered in a giant ocean.
The surface of Europa is covered in a thick layer of water ice. Beneath this icy exterior is an ocean that goes about 62 miles deep (in contrast, the deepest part of Earth’s ocean only goes about 7 miles deep). All that to say, Europa is certainly not a place you’d want to go swimming. Brr…

That big red spot you see on Jupiter is actually a storm.
Think of it like the most insane hurricane you can imagine. In fact, the red storm—which is Jupiter’s most identifiable feature—is so large that you could fit two or three of our home Earths in it. Batten down the hatches.

If the Earth was not tilted on its axis, we would have no seasons.
If the earth was situated straight up and down (with the north pole sitting at the very top and the south pole at the very bottom), the entire face of the earth would likely have a tropical climate all year long. So next time someone tells you that Jesus is the reason for the season, tell them that, actually, the fact that the Earth is tilted about 45 degrees on its axis is the reason for the season.

* * *

So there you have it! Interesting stuff. J Tune in next time for some cool facts about deep space…

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Golden Birthdays

This was the train of thought I experienced while driving to work this morning:

I work with a girl who is 20 years old, and her birthday is August 20. This means that this past birthday was her “golden” birthday (when the age you’re turning matches the date you were born).

I have the latest possible golden birthday: the 31st.

But that’s fine. It doesn’t really matter much to me.

But then I thought about people born on February 29th, and I thought that would be a really cool golden birthday if it happened to actually land on February 29th (as opposed to having to celebrate it on, say, February 28th  or March 1st), because that would be a meaningful golden birthday.

Then I thought, “In fact, that’d be so rare and historic that it would probably be on the news” (or, at the very least, on Yahoo! News, which features articles about everything). I mean, they always talk about when some kid turns 12 years old at 12:12pm on 12/12/2012, and stuff like that. Why not mention someone turning 29 years old on February 29th?

For a moment I thought that maybe it’s just never ever happened before. In that case, the first time would be historic.

And then…

And then, suddenly, I realized the sad, cold truth: It isn’t possible to turn 29 years old on February 29th.

Since February 29th only happens every four years, if you have that birthday, your “birthday” will only occur on years when your age is divisible by four. So your birthday will fall on the day you turn 28 years old, but then not again until you’re 32.

You poor, poor people born on February 29th. You’ll never have a golden birthday. My deepest condolences. Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How My Mind Works

(Recently, I undertook a data-entry project at work that involved getting people’s contact information off of business cards. This idea began when I came across the business card for a bookkeeper…)

You know what’s a funny word? Bookkeeping. It has three double letters in a row. I can’t think of another word that does that. It reminds me of Charlotte’s Web—there’s that crazy goose that is always trying to spell things, and he always spells everything with double letters. You know what I’m talking about: Double E, double A, double R…And then there’s Charlotte, that cute but creepy spider that somehow knows how to spell everything. I mean, I guess the fact that Charlotte can spell isn’t any stranger than a goose who can speak, so that crazy goose isn’t really the weirdest part. It’s a children’s book anyway—strange things can happen in children’s books. Like Pinocchio—WEIRD. Not at all like the Disney cartoon. I mean, I haven’t read the book myself, but my wife told me about it and it sounds insane. That Carlos Collodi was one crazy Italian dude. Kind of like Mario (of the Super Mario Bros. variety). Do you even remember that Mario was a plumber living in Brooklyn? What happened to that? Now he doesn’t seem to have any occupation other than Super Hero (even Batman/Bruce Wayne has a job outside of his heroism—geez…), and now he lives in the Mushroom Kingdom. What happened to Brooklyn? I shouldn’t complain though, because the Super Mario games have gotten amazing. I’m currently working on playing through Super Mario Galaxy, which is a very fun, unique game. I’ve already played Super Mario Galaxy 2 (I got both the games as gifts, but out of order). Galaxy 2 was better, but the first one certainly has its charm. In fact, to be perfectly fair, the story of Super Mario Galaxy was one of the major inspirations for my most recent children’s book, which has a lot to do with astronomy. And my children’s book has some weird/surreal things in it too, so I shouldn’t complain about Charlotte’s Web. I didn’t really care for Charlotte’s Web that much though. But, to be honest, I didn’t really like pretty much any books back when I read it, so—who knows?—maybe it’s not so bad. I’d say maybe I should re-read it nowadays, but let’s face it: I know I’m not going to. There are too many other great books left to read without going back to the old ones, the ones that I didn’t really like the first time. It makes you wonder though: how many things have I experienced that I didn’t properly appreciate in its time, but maybe I would appreciate them now, but since I didn’t like them the first time around, my mind has been tainted against them, and so now I’ll never experience them, even though I could quite enjoy them now? I think this might happen a lot with books and movies, for example. The first time I read Till We Have Faces, I actually didn’t much care for it, but then I had occasion to read it a second time, and it’s become one of my very favorite books. So I’m glad I took the time/risk to re-read it, because now I love it. What other things am I missing out on? And of course, there’s the opposite: sometimes you experience something once and LOVE it, and then when you go back for a second time, it’s like the magic is just gone. Like Disneyland. I used to love Disneyland as a kid. Although, to be fair, all throughout growing up in Southern California, I preferred Knott’s Berry Farm—but, to be quite frank, looking back I think I preferred Knott’s because I just wanted to be different than everyone else, who always seemed to favor Disneyland. This same concept applied to holidays when I was younger: everyone’s favorite holiday was always Christmas, so I said mine was Easter. Easter has its charm, to be sure, but really, it’s probably not actually better than Christmas. Nowadays I sometimes say Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but the truth is I don’t really care for Thanksgiving that much either. It sounds good in theory, but in reality—eh. I guess I just don’t like holidays in general. Christmas is still nice though. Disneyland is still nice too; I’m sure I’ll go there again sometime, if for no reason other than to take my son Emerson, who was named after one of my very favorite authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote any children’s books, but he’s still pretty good. As far as I know, he never wrote any fiction either. He’s a really good author—a lot of the inspiration for my own writing comes from him (even though I mostly focus on fiction). I kind of hope that if my Emerson (the one who I wrote my most recent children’s book for) agrees with the ideals of Ralph Waldo, I think he’ll be alright, because Ralph Waldo certainly knew what was up when it came to just about everything—kind of like Abraham Lincoln, which I know now because I saw the new movie Lincoln and it was amazing and Daniel Day-Lewis was unbelievable as Abe, and both Abe and Ralph Waldo hated slavery with a passion and anybody who can hate something so bad with such a fervor is bound to be a great guy, and I think my son will be a great guy, and maybe starting him with the right books will be a good start. I hated reading when I was younger, but I think I turned out okay, and maybe if Emerson loves reading he’ll be ahead of the game, and can pass me up, which is really what I think most parents want: to be outlived and outshined by their kids. At least that’s what I want, and I feel like what I want in this case is normal, so I assume that this must be what most people want, but who knows really.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

the Blue House

There is a small blue house just down the street from the center of the city. The business sector suddenly ends, and then there is a row of houses, just like that. The blue one is the third or fourth house down from the cut-off between business and residential.

As far as I know, the house is not for sale. At least, there are no signs in the yard indicating that it is. And yet, I can’t help but think that I would like to live there. You thought so too, and said as much when we were last there in the city. We agreed that we would probably be quite happy in that small blue house.

* * *

I finally got the chance to show you around the city. We were on foot, so I didn’t get to show you much of it. But there is enough of interest within just a few city blocks to make it worth the visit.

Not long after we began walking, we stumbled upon a certain street, one that has become rather special in my mind. I almost forgot the street was there until we were actually upon it. I told you that whenever I come here in my dreams, for some reason I often dream about this street.

Who knows what dreams mean, really, but the street feels important because of its prominence in my dreams. Dreams can do that: add meaning to something that would otherwise be inconsequential. The street always looks a bit different, of course—different stores and restaurants, different neon signs and intersections—but déjà vu tells me that it is always the same street, even if it is re-imagined by my mind each time.

We went into a small bookstore on the street and quickly split ways, looking in different sections for books that interested us. You were looking for British classics, and I was hoping to find a section devoted to the Oxford World’s Classics series. No such section existed—it turned out—but it was just as well.

I turned my attention to looking for a book by a foreign author whose name I can’t even spell, let alone pronounce. Pierdoit? Peridot? Peirot? His first name was Andres…or, at least, something that started with an A. They didn’t have anything by him—it was a rather small bookstore, after all, and he’s a decently obscure author. French, if I recall. The thought came to mind that perhaps I was confusing this author with Georges Perec, but then that didn’t sound right.

After a few minutes of looking around on our own, you and I found each other again. You had found a book you wanted to buy, something by Jane Austen. Even though you already had a copy of it at home, this was a special edition. And anyway, it would be a good memento for your visit to the city. I also told you that this was the store where I bought my first copy of Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, and, for that reason, the store held a special nostalgia for me.

After we left the bookstore, we continued down the street. It must have snowed the night before, because the further away from the city center we got, the more snow and ice there was on the ground. Though I’m not much of an ice skater, still, we decided to skate along the sidewalk and the street, me in my black Converse, you in your yellow. It was while we were skating that we came across the small blue house, the one we wanted to buy, the house where we would be happy.

And then we started heading back into the city, and I woke up.

Oh, London—do you even exist?

Not all is lost: for what it’s worth, you really do have yellow Converse.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

London: a Short Story (or Two-?)

Every time I’m in London, there is a particular restaurant I like to go to. This is a bit odd, because generally I don’t much care for the food in London. But there is that one restaurant I never let myself miss—in fact, just to make sure I get a chance to eat there during my visit to London, I might just go straight there from the aeroport.

I know exactly how to get to this restaurant from various parts of town. Up ahead to the next corner, turn right, and it’s only two blocks down the street from there. I’m not very familiar with the layout of London (it’s a big city and I’ve not been there very many times), but I never have trouble finding this restaurant whenever I’m in town.

Despite the fact that I don’t much care for the food in London, there are, of course, exceptions to this. They use Irish beef at most of their burger joints, which is very different from—and I’d say better than—American beef. Even the McDonald’s restaurants are better in London, not only because of the Irish beef, but also because they serve Cadbury Crème Egg McFlurry’s and curly fries. That said, as odd as it may sound, McDonald’s is still worth a visit whenever I’m in London.

I find it of special interest how sometimes our dreams can taint our memories, sometimes even making the two nearly indistinguishable.

An example: My first time in London, there was a specific McDonald’s I went to. I no longer remember exactly where in the city it was, but I want to say it was on a side-street off of Trafalgar Square. The other buildings all around it weren’t very distinctly marked—I suppose they must have been residences, though I’m really not sure. While at this McDonald’s, I remember thinking I’d rather work at a McDonald’s in London than have a nicer, higher-paying job in the U.S.

But here’s where it gets fuzzy:

I rather clearly remember ordering a Happy Meal in that specific McDonald’s and getting a Super Mario Bros.-based toy. It was, if I recall, a Lakitu in his cloud on wheels (for those of you familiar with the Super Mario Bros. games, you’ll recall that Lakitu is the turtle-ish creature that moves around in the cloud and throws the spike balls down at you from above. In later Mario games, he also serves as the "cameraman").

This may sound alright so far, but here’s the problem with this memory:

Yes, I’m pretty certain that this Lakitu toy is real, but it came out over ten years before the first time I was in London. In fact, I have another memory of when I got that toy, but it was in California, at a McDonald’s inside of a mall. I was with my parents—I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten years old. Of course I no longer have the toy.

How did this memory get mixed up with my memory of the McDonald’s in London? I think a dream must have connected them, though it’s hard to say. But now, for whatever reason, I can’t think of that specific McDonald’s in London without thinking of the Lakitu toy, and the memory gets all muddled.

But back to this special restaurant in London

Though I always know how to get to the restaurant when I’m in town (and though I’ve been there several times), I could never give anyone else directions to it. I don’t know the name of the street it is on. In fact, I don’t even know the name of it. When I look at the sign hanging above the front door, I can’t read it. The first letter seems to be a ‘P’, but the rest is hazy…

…the classic sign of a dream.

When I woke up, I realized that the restaurant isn’t even real.

Shortly after waking up, I met with a friend at a New Mexican restaurant here in town and told all of this to her. I told it to her just as I’m telling it now, acting as though the restaurant is real before I finally drop the surprise that it’s not real; it was all a dream. I feel like it’s more fun/dramatic/interesting that way, I suppose.

Interestingly, I’ve dreamed about the restaurant several times though. She, too, thought this was interesting: Is it a sign? Does it mean something? Is the restaurant actually real, and I’ve actually been there, but I’m just not remembering it from reality?

I told her that I don’t think any of these things are the case. The entire premise was a bit silly anyway—me thinking that every time I’m in London I go to this one specific restaurant. In fact, I’ve only been to London twice. Two times hardly qualifies as saying something happens every time.

Mind you, I’ve had many dreams about London. And in those dreams, yes: I’ve gone to restaurants. And parks and malls and bus stations and aeroports and special city streets. The dreams of the malls are the most interesting, because I always happen to know where the malls are (I never stumble upon them by mistake, unlike every other type of place in my London-dreams), and they usually have crazy layouts and architecture and stores.

Also, this is especially odd because there are no malls in London.

In fact, before going to the restaurant, I went to one of these whacky malls. Weird.

A question: Is there an archetype for dream symbolism regarding unique malls or restaurants?


The other thing odd about the entire London-dream-restaurant idea is that the restaurant was a New Mexican restaurant. I don’t like New Mexican food. And there are no New Mexican restaurants in London. At least, as far as I know, there are no New Mexican restaurants in London. I certainly can’t imagine there being one (though my psyche may disagree with me on that).

While sitting there with my friend, she asked when the more recent of the two times was that I had been to London. I told her it was last night.


That doesn’t make sense.

And just how did I get to this restaurant with her? I don’t remember waking up or getting ready or agreeing to meet her or driving here. In fact, this girl isn’t even a friend of mine…

It turns out I’ve only been to London once.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Casen Buswell

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors—
We borrow it from our children.”
~ Native American proverb

Normally, I think that people use this quote in the context of being more environmentally friendly and such. Maybe that’s exactly what the proverb is meant to resonate—who knows?

But I’m using it in a different context today—something a little more immediate and more intimate.

I’m normally not one for politics or preachiness or advertisements or anything else of the sort, but I just couldn’t pass this up. I came across this article on Yahoo! News a few days ago, and it REALLY got to me.

This is about a baby boy, Casen Buswell, who lives in Washington State and has an extremely rare disease, called glomuvenous malformations plaque type. You can read the article to get an idea of what this disease does—it sounds horrific. And it is so rare that Baby Casen is one of only 14 known cases in the entire world. Yes, you read that right: 14. Not 1400 or 14000 or any other amount of zeroes tacked on to the end of it.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13,

14—this one is Baby Casen

I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I don’t have any affiliation with the CDC or any medical facilities or organizations. But I’m wagering that having only 14 cases worldwide has got to make this one of the most rare diseases out there—if not the number one rarest. And, being so rare, there is only one facility in the world that treats this disease.

The problem is: it’s in Belgium.

And Baby Casen needs monthly treatments.

Baby Casen needs monthly treatments in Belgium.

The distance from Puyallup, Washington (where the Buswell family lives) to Brussels, Belgium (where the medical center that can treat Baby Casen is) is right about 5,000 miles.

The Buswell family is expecting this entire process to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To help raise money, they’ve started a fund online that can be accessed here.

Let me make it clear that I’ve never met the Buswell family, and—pending some rather peculiar twist of fate—I’m sure I never will. But now that my son Emerson is born, seeing and hearing about other suffering babies hits me about 1,000 times worse than it ever has before. (Am I exaggerating?—maybe a little. But not as much as you’d think.). Emily (my wife) and I have been incredibly lucky the past few months with Emerson, and any time I hear about another baby who isn’t so lucky, it breaks my heart (even writing this is causing me to get all teary-eyed!).

Emily and I aren’t rich—ha! We already don’t particularly have quite enough money for our own needs. Regardless of this, we still pay tithe to our church (mostly for philosophical reasons, at least on my part). But I’m pretty sure our church could live without our little tithing check once or twice so that we can put that money towards helping Baby Casen. So that’s our plan.

To be clear: I’m not asking anyone to do anything about this except read the article. The Buswell’s goal for this fundraiser is to hit $50,000, and it’s closing November 30th. As of the time I’m writing this post, they’ve raised $18,776 so far—not yet halfway there. Really, it’s nothing to me if you choose to contribute any money to the cause. It’s not my child; he’s nobody I know; it’s certainly not like I’m ever going to ask you if you donated anything. I’ll never know what anybody does with this information. I just wanted to make sure more people hear about him and his situation, so that—just maybe—the Buswell family can get just a little closer to saving their seven-month-old son.

I would ask you to do the same thing if Emerson was the fourteenth baby in the world with this disease. Just read the article, look at the pictures of Baby Casen (there are many on the fundraising website), and do what you will.

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.

We are borrowing the earth from Baby Casen and from my son Emerson.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

a (Personal) Brief History of Reading

I was recently reading the latest post on my good friend Michelle’s blog (—and if you’re not reading or following her blog, you need to be. She’s an awesome writer and has many wonderful insights). Her post, I Want to Be the Minority got me thinking about my own history of reading, and I decided that there may be a story there to tell. So here you go…

Let me start by saying that, if you know me, this may be a big surprise.

I love reading. I’ve read hundreds of books. For a short while I worked at a used bookstore, and loved so much about the job. My favorite stores are Barnes & Noble, Powell’s (in Portland, OR), Bookman’s (several locations in AZ), and just about any independent bookstore (especially used bookstores). Between my wife and I, we have 600+ books and are constantly adding to our collection in hopes of someday having our very own “Beauty and the Beast library.”

Most people who know me know all of these things. What most people don’t know is that I used to hate reading. And I don’t just mean when I was a precocious five-year-old who only ever wanted to be playing outside or with my friends or playing video games. I mean that I hated reading all throughout elementary, middle, and even—gasp!—high school. It’s true. Of course every now and then throughout those years I’d come across a book that wasn’t so bad, but for the most part, I didn’t want to have anything to do with books or reading.

When I first learned to read (which my parents taught me how to do before I started kindergarten), the only things I wanted to read were video game manuals and guides. I still remember a special guide I had that covered the first three of the old NES Mega Man games, which I read several times through and through (even the section devoted to Mega Man 1, which I didn’t even own and still have never played).

Through the first several years of elementary school (especially third and fourth grade), all the kids in my class were in a craze of reading Goosebumps (the kids horror series by R. L. Stein). I borrowed one of these books from a classmate and couldn’t get past the third page. It wasn’t that it was a bad book—it’s just that it was a book. As well, in third grade, my teacher gave me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I actually took the time to read the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shortly thereafter (and enjoyed it), but didn’t bother with the rest of the series—even if they were good, they were still books, after all.

Mind you, all along my reading skills were several years ahead of the grade I was in. And I’ve always loved writing—I just didn’t ever want to read.

In high school, I pretty much only read books that were required for class. My junior year I discovered Winnie-the-Pooh and absolutely adored it, but this was a very rare exception. That same year, my Creative Writing teacher asked how I could write without reading, and this question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see how the two related (I understand now, of course, but I didn’t at the time).

The first half of my senior year, I read all the books I was required to for English and hated all of them (especially the Odyssey by Homer—ugh!). When we were required to write essays on these books, I got pretty bad scores—mostly 4’s and 5’s out of 9.

Then we got to the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

You’re probably thinking I’m going to say this book turned me around; I loved it; I finally realized what reading was all about.

Nope—quite the opposite, in fact. As much as I hated everything else I’d read that year, I especially hated the Metamorphosis—so much so that I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish reading it. I knew I would struggle with writing the essay on it, but I wasn’t getting good grades on the essays anyways, so why bother? It just wasn’t worth it. I only read—at most—half of the Metamorphosis before tossing it aside. In class, when it came time to write the essay, I was much more nervous than normal and just wanted the awful mess to be over with, assuring myself that I wouldn’t do this again, that I would actually read the next book we were assigned.

But then something miraculous happened: I got an 8 out of 9 on the essay (sorry, Ms. Amundson). Yep: an 8. Ms. Amundson wrote comments on my paper to the effect of: she could tell I was finally grasping this whole essay-writing thing and it was apparent that I actually spent time with the book (ha!).

From then on, I didn’t read anything that was required for school, and saw mostly A’s on all my papers.

Who on Earth would read when they don’t have to?

I took the ACT at the end of my senior year, and got a good enough grade on the English section that I was able to entirely skip the 100-level of English classes in college. My first semester of college, I went straight into a 200-level class, and only went up from there.

This trend continued throughout my first couple years of college—I read almost nothing, despite taking many English classes, as well as several honors classes (which basically operated like weekly book clubs). And I kept getting A’s (or, on rare occasion, high B’s).

But somewhere in there, something happened.

One day, I got into a big fight with the girl I was dating at the time. Anymore, who knows what the fight was about; I certainly don’t remember now. I probably didn’t even really know at the time. I left her house that afternoon, quite upset. But I didn’t want to go home or to another friend’s house or anywhere else that normally would have been a comfort. For some reason, the only thing that sounded like an alright idea was to go to Barnes & Noble. Considering my aversion to reading at the time, I have no idea why this sounded like such a good idea. But I went.

Walking the halls of Barnes & Noble, I didn’t know what I was doing there or what I was looking for. I knew a lot about literary classics (mostly from paying attention and winging it in my classes), so I mostly looked around in that section. I picked up a few books—all ones whose name I had heard at some point or another—and read the descriptions. This actually doesn’t sound too bad…

I honestly don’t even remember if I bought anything that day. But by the time I left, I was feeling much better, and I had a small list of books that I thought I might try to read sometime—mostly classics, though there were also a few random science books on the list as well (every now and again—even to this day—I go through a kick where I suddenly become super nerdy and think I’m into science for a brief spell—it rarely lasts more than a few weeks though).

I don’t mind saying now that that particular girlfriend and I fought quite a bit—which meant that I began to spend more and more time at Barnes & Noble, and slowly began amassing a small collection of books. I even started to not only collect these books, but to actually read them—slowly of course, no more than one or so a month.

At first, I realize now, owning these books made me feel somehow proud and intellectual—even the books I didn’t read, I somehow felt smart just because they were on my shelf. I got better at BS’ing papers for school because (even though I still wasn’t reading any books for school), I understood the concept of books better, the flow of stories, the ways to skim the first couple pages and the last couple pages and get the gist of the story. I began to understand writing styles, which meant I could discuss various forms of writing, as opposed to merely discussing the plots of these books.

(By the way, fair warning: look out, because I’ve gotten quite deft at discussing books I’ve never read, as if I’ve read them. This seems to be a prerequisite for working in a book store. If you ask me straight-up if I’ve actually read a book, I won’t lie to you—but if you don’t ask, I may not volunteer the information.)

Here’s a list of a few of the early books I read that got me more into the idea of reading. I don’t mean to suggest that this will necessarily spark an interest for reading in other non-readers, but I thought it may be worth sharing anyway…

Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Pooh and Philosophers, Pooh and Psychologists, and Pooh and the Millennium, all by John Williams
Inferno by Dante Alighieri (wait…okay, I haven’t actually read all of this yet. But I’ve read quite a bit of it, and I felt really good choosing it and adding it to my shelf all those years ago)
Bono in Conversation With Michka Assayas
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Looking for Alaska by John Green (I bought this book completely on a whim just after it came out, and it became the first book I ever read all in one day. Perhaps not surprisingly, it held the title of my very favorite book for several years, before eventually being dethroned by a more recent book by the same author, Paper Towns)
The Giver by Lois Lowry
All Rivers Flow to the Sea by Alison McGhee
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
Seven Types of Ambiguity by Eliot Pearlman (this book really did a lot for me, but every person I’ve recommended it to hasn’t seemed to care for it, to my surprise)
Dracula by Bram Stoker

Nowadays, you can’t keep me away from books. I’m rarely to be seen anywhere without a book in my hands (even at work, church, school, etc.). I mostly enjoy classics and books that are on their way to becoming classics (i.e. anything by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, C.S. Lewis, Jose Saramago, etc.), though certainly there are many exceptions to this. And of course there’s anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Ende, Kahlil Gibran, and Zoran Zivkovic, none of whom can be overlooked.

I suppose, to be fair, there isn’t necessarily much of a point to me telling this story. Maybe the moral here is that people change in unexpected ways. Maybe it’s that a person’s history can always be a surprise. Who knows?—I just thought it’d be worth sharing, especially for those that know me.

And don’t worry—if I ever talk about any specific book in this blog, I’ll be sure it’s one that I’ve actually read, or else be very clear up front that I haven’t read it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In light of all that’s been happening in the Middle East this past week (the revolts, the attack on the U.S. Embassy, etc.—all allegedly in response to a Youtube video defaming Islam), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about peace, what it really means and what it looks like and how we might find it. I’m not interested in talking about a political stance on anything right now, nor am I interested in hearing one. But I’d like to say something about peace and harmony.

There is a lot of conflict these days (really, I suppose there always has been) over opposing ideals: Republican versus Democrat, Christianity versus whatever other religion it currently happens to be picking on (at the moment Islam, though of course many other religions have fallen prey at one point or another throughout history). And it strikes me that this is all ridiculous. These things—these opposing political parties and religions and whatnot—are all just a means. The Republican Party is a means of governing the country, just as is the Democratic Party. They’re both after the same thing: running the country in (what they believe is) the most efficient way possible. Similarly, Christianity is a means of living life effectively and being compassionate to others and—possibly, hopefully—getting some sort of a reward for this in the end. But the exact same could be said of Islam and Buddhism and Wicca and just about any other religion out there. The fact is that these things are all means, not ends. They are roads.

The interesting thing is that sometimes we will get ourselves onto one of these roads and believe that it is the best of all roads. Perhaps this is not so bad in of itself, but the problem comes in what all-too-often happens next: we begin to talk about our road, preach about it, debate it, defend it, push it on other people, even fight over it (sometimes with words, sometimes violently). Absurd.

We are arguing over shortcuts.

Not to over-simplify things, but I tend to believe that we all want the same basic thing in life. It can be hard to define sometimes—and I certainly don’t want to get myself into a semantic trap here—but it seems to me that we all want peace, especially within ourselves (though, I suspect, most of us would like external peace as well). Peace is the end we’re all aiming for; now we are arguing over the means (which is ironic any way you look at it, but I’m here to make another point).

Interestingly, a very common synonym for peace is harmony—which is, of course, a musical term. Harmony happens when two or more different notes are played or sung together at the same time to produce a pleasing sound. The key here is that the notes are different. Harmony requires different elements working together in synchronicity. In other words, when we’re all playing the same note, we’re not in harmony.

I can’t help but think that this is how peace works as well. Peace doesn’t mean that we all agree all the time, or that there are no differences between us. Rather, it means that we accept our differences and get along with each other anyway.

To these people—the polarized and polarizing ones—I want to say:

“You think that the world would be more peaceful if everyone agrees with you, whether about your god, your religion, your political party—whatever. And maybe it would; who’s to say for certain? But I tend to think that the world would be more peaceful if we all were more accepting of each other, and got over our differences. The key distinction here is that your version of peace requires everybody but you to do something. My version requires that only I do something.”

I can't change everyone else. Really, I can’t even change anyone else. I can only change myself.

That said, which version of peace makes more sense?

I choose to take responsibility for myself and my version of peace, because I know that, ultimately, it is the only peace I have any say in. I cannot make the world listen to me, but I can make myself listen to the world.

Friday, September 14, 2012


“The roof of the kingdom
within has collapsed! When I say the
word you, I mean a hundred universes.”
from the poem The Death of Saladin by Rumi

Oddly, I actually don’t mind the coldness rushing in from my left, spilling in through my window as I drive away. Normally I have an aversion to the cold, but tonight it seems to make sense, almost as though this one small corner of the universe is conspiring to make me feel a very specific sensation or emotion as I drive towards nowhere. I’m not nowhere, of course; I’m somewhere, though it feels like I’m constantly at the edge of nowhere, like it’s always just a step away.

The moon is nowhere to be found, and through the darkness I almost can’t tell that it’s softly raining outside. It is only when I pass beneath a street light that I can see all the raindrops splayed across my windshield, lit up like a thousand sparks. And in those moments I am blinded by those droplets of water, those countless tiny mirrors reflecting light and only light. But instantly the moment passes and there is darkness again, on the other side of every window.

The inside of my car is bathed with a subtle neon glow from the face of my stereo which is, at the moment, playing Set the Fire to the Third Bar by Snow Patrol. This song, this mood, this lighting, these sparks are all leaving me breathing slowly and feeling vaguely haunted. But this is nothing new. I have heard these sounds and seen this light before. Perhaps it is the precision, this specific combination of elements, this atmosphere that surrounds me as I face off against the darkness that is haunting me now.
I don’t mind the coldness pouring in, but you are not in the breeze. I don’t mind the rain that is occasionally blinding me, but you are not in the water or in the mirrors. And I don’t mind the darkness…but surely—wherever you are—you are in the darkness too. Probably it is just another darkness that you are in, a darkness different than mine, a different edge of the circular nowhere that is at the heart of the universe. But of course that universe is only you and me and our ghosts.

The truth is that I’m running, but even I don’t know if it’s toward you or away from you. I can only hope you are just as magnanimous now as you were then, because there’s simply no way to explain how we are fading.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Seagulls Only Die Until 5pm

The moment you step outside of my office, you are immediately confronted by the sound of a thousand seagulls dying. They’re not seagulls, of course—we’re about 800 miles from the sea, give or take a handful. But still, there they are: the sound of the seagulls, cawing, flapping their wings amidst screeches as they plummet to the earth or to the water. At least this is how I picture them dying, falling out of the sky, still struggling all throughout their descent. I’ve never seen it happen. And I’m certainly not going to around here, 800 miles from the sea.

You can only hear them until 5pm, when the lights are turned off, when it’s time to go home from the factory.

I hear them if I happen to go outside on my lunch break, or on the days I go home early. Other days—the days when I don’t leave the building until 5 o’clock—I don’t hear the seagulls. I presume they’re still there throughout the day, dying, though there’s no way of knowing for certain. If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around…but how absurd. Of course seagulls die even when we’re not looking.

My son cries when I’m not looking, though his crying is not so clockwork as the sound of the seagulls. Here and there, now and again throughout the day he’ll cry, but of course that’s normal for a three-month-old boy.

But sometimes he smiles, and that’s when I remember that it’s all worth it. I don’t mean to say that it’s only worth it when he smiles—certainly it’s all worth it when he’s crying and frowning too. I just mean that it’s easier to see that it’s worth it when he’s happy.

And of course smiling doesn’t make a sound. Perhaps happiness is a quiet emotion, because we don’t necessarily feel the need to share it. I am happy, and that is enough. But when we decide to share our happiness, when we show someone else our smile, we realize that happiness should not be a private affair, that others need our happiness just as much as we ourselves need it.

Sometimes when I awaken, I see that my son is already awake, looking around in awe, smiling at anything and everything, and even at me. I wonder: how often does he smile, even when I’m not looking?

I think that one of the saddest things in life, rather than seeing tragedy, is not seeing happiness. Surely happiness is happening all around us, even when we’re not looking. It makes me sad to think about all of the smiles that I miss from my son or from my wife when I’m not around, all the symphonic laughter that I’m not a part of and that I’ll never know, because I’m asleep or at work or in the other room or somehow otherwise just away.

The seagulls have their beginning and their end. They are from 8 to 5, and they are a distraction. But happiness doesn’t have a clock. It is forever—or at least, it should be. And I hope that I always do my part to let it be.

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