Thursday, June 30, 2011

Idea Books

I like books and movies that ask me to imagine a different world or reality. I call these "idea books/movies." I've recently encountered two idea books.

Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives by David Eagleman is a small thing, a short read that I could probably finish off in one sitting if I were so inspired. It's a fascinating idea: 40 different theories on what happens to you when you die.

Unfortunately, the idea is more interesting than the content. It does have some fascinating, mind-blowing ideas, but on the whole the book is mostly disappointing. Maybe that's what the afterlife is really like: you get all excited about the idea of it, but then it's anticlimactic.

The title passage, "Sum", posits that in death we re-live all the moments of our life, but they are bunched together by activity. Therefore, we sleep for 30 years and spend six days clipping our nails. Seven months of non-stop sex. One year reading books. Twenty-seven intense hours of pain: broken bones, accidents, cuts, etc. Three weeks realizing you're wrong. You get the picture. Everything is clumped together.

Although the statistics would be interesting, it's kind of a stupid idea. As I was reading it, I protested, "But you can't just take all of these moments out of context like that." Relaxing on the couch after a long strenuous day is different from sitting on it for months at a time. But that is his point. He ends this story with the moral that we are fortunate that life is broken up into "tiny swallowable pieces." Like so many other theories in the book, it seems to point more to life than to death.

Almost every theory in the book points to one conclusion: when you die, you find out what the true nature of life and the universe is. (Which happens to be what I always hoped the afterlife would be like.) It's only that true nature that changes from story to story. There's also a very heavy Western bias in all the theories. They're mostly all about the Judeo-Christian God-- some anthropomorphized deity-- living in heaven. I had kind of hoped that the theories would be a little more out there.

The writing isn't that great, and a lot of the examples or conclusions he comes to don't make sense to me. He might have an interesting idea, but the implementation feels all wrong. For example, there's a theory about how you are represented in the afterlife by yourself at every age, so that your 5-year-old self might hang out with your 34-year-old self and your 67-year-old self. Neat idea, but then he goes on to say that many of your different selves realize they have hardly anything in common other than a name. Huh? Surely sharing the same life history and experiences counts for a strong bond, even if it's a teenager and an elderly version of yourself?

Still, as an idea book, it gets the job done. Some of his ideas are very similar to ideas I've had, and some are completely new to me. Those new and old ideas mingled and brought up new theories.

For example, as I was reading the book, I had this revelation that maybe I have already died dozens of times, but the superior being who is playing the "Game of Tim" keeps going back to an earlier saved version of the game and reviving me. I do this when I play computer games if I make a stupid fatal mistake. I go back and try again. Maybe that's what my life is like. That could explain why I'm convinced that things will work out in the end. Any fatal mistakes can be fixed by going back to an earlier saved version.

The book is a short read that can get your creative juices flowing, so I recommend it.


The other idea book I'm reading right now is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

I really like this book. Besides the fact that its main character is a librarian who lives in Chicago, it brings up fascinating ideas that branch off in all different directions.

Henry has Chrono Displacement, a genetic condition where he travels through time with no control over when and where. He is married to Clare. At their first first meeting, she is 6 and he is in his 30's. At their second first meeting, she is 20 and he is 28. She has known him her whole childhood, but he has no idea who she is. But his future self has visited her throughout her childhood. Encounters between them happen at different ages, so that when a 32-year-old Henry visits a 14-year-old Clare, he doesn't yet have a memory of when his 40-year-old self visited her when she was 9.

It brings up a lot of weird issues, like: would it be wrong to sleep with your wife when she's 16 and begging for it, when you're a 35-year-old guy and married to her older self? (He doesn't.) Would you tell your friends and family their future? Would you "get intimate" with a younger version of yourself? (He does.)

The circular determinism brings up all sorts of questions about free will. Henry visits Clare when she's a child because they're married, but the only reason she falls for him as an adult is that he was such a huge part of her childhood. It turns into quite a mindfuck if you think too hard on it.

But it's a fun mindfuck.


Like most of my book reviews, I'm only halfway through The Time Traveler's Wife, so if you're like Henry and you know my future, don't tell me what happens. I guess there's a movie, too, and I'd like to see that when I'm done with the book.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Sometimes, when you hem and haw over a decision, it gets made for you.

I'm about to get more personal than I usually get on this blog, but since I think hardly anyone reads it, I don't think it matters all that much.

I've been uneasy about the "Why I'm An Ally" essay I wrote, which I first posted on this blog and then submitted a revised version to the local online magazine, Smile Politely.

I'm not uneasy about "coming out" publicly as an advocate for gay rights. That's easy. What worried me was that some people might doubt my sincerity at claiming to be a straight advocate for gay rights.

For reasons that are too personal to go into here, some people might argue that I am bisexual. I have good reason to believe I'm not (like wondering if I'm gay, I've wondered if I'm bi, but always come to the same conclusion: I overwhelmingly prefer women) so I don't identify as such, but if someone believed it, it would certainly weaken the points I make in the essay. For this reason, I felt that the article was not entirely honest, and I was hesitant to post it to my Facebook page, where I have many gay and bisexual friends who might think I'm just a closet-case in denial.

Meanwhile, this week I got into an argument on Facebook with some bisexuals over this article:, so I'm feeling even more sensitive about this whole issue. (The disagreement was that bisexuals think Dan Savage sucks, and I think he is awesome, even though he is snarky and disrespectful.)

So then, this morning, Joel Derfner himself, the author who I quote in my article, leaves a comment: "Tim, thank you for writing this—and thank you for reading (and, I hope, enjoying) my book!" Wow! Someone famous noticed me! This is thrilling news. The kind of thing I would love to share on Facebook, but, to do so would expose all my friends to this article I'm ambivalent about. What to do?

As I was agonizing over this, a friend of a friend who found the article on Smile Politely posted it to her Facebook page, and then tagged me in it. This means that, without me doing anything, the article has been published on my Facebook page.

Okay, I guess the decision has been made for me. So, that's that.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Featured Article

I finally cleaned up my Why I'm an Ally essay and submitted it to Smile Politely. I'm still not 100% happy with it, but I was pleased that they used it as their "Featured Article" early this Monday Morning.

You can read the published version here:

UPDATE: For various reasons, I'm not super happy with this article and can see a lot that someone would object to. So it's a little satisfying that on the website and FB it's received five effusive comments and 7 "likes," all from people I don't know. And one friend sent me a message that said it was "totally gay," which made me laugh-- hopefully not in a homophobic manner.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gift Books

I will be attending my first bar mitzvah this weekend. My nephew David is becoming a man in the Jewish tradition.
I'm looking forward to it. I've never seen any Jewish service at all, so it will be a completely new experience for me.

When I asked my sister-in-law what kind of gift is appropriate for the occasion, she suggested I get him a book that is special to me. My mind immediately thought of the only book that had a profound effect on me when I was a teenager: Portnoy's Complaint.

Hey, it's about a Jewish boy becoming a man, right? Well, kind of. For the uninitiated, Portnoy's Complaint is a detailed account of a neurotic Jewish boy/man's sexual (mis)adventures, starting with him, uh, "violating" a piece of liver that would become his family's dinner. (It was begging for it.)

I read it when I was in 8th or 9th grade, and probably again in the 9th or 10th grade, and again in 11th or 12th grade, and then probably again in college. I read that book so often it could have turned me blind.

So when I joked to my sister-in-law that I could get David Portnoy's Complaint as a bar mitzvah gift, she was not amused. But she took it well and said, "Maybe not for another few years." He is, after all, only 13. Also, receiving such a gift from your uncle, at any age, would be very creepy.

Still, the thought amused me.


Frankly, I can't think of any other books that have special significance to me that also would be appropriate for a 13-year-old boy. My favorite book, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, wouldn't be creepy, just kind of boring for someone of that age, I think.

Shel Silverstein's The Missing Piece is another favorite, but again, I don't know if it's age/gender appropriate. Same with Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions.

As I was pondering this, I came across this video on Facebook:

It's going viral in a hurry. Two of my friends, from different parts of the country, posted it within hours of each other. Each of them had re-posted it from friends of theirs.

It's a reading of the book is Go the Fuck to Sleep, read by Samuel L. Jackson. For any parent or caregiver who's ever dealt with a child who keeps stalling to go to bed, it's brilliant.

Again, not appropriate for my nephew's bar mitzvah, but it may be my new favorite children's book of all time.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why I Am an Ally

I've been working on this article for several weeks now, hoping to publish it in Smile Politely. But I'm just not happy with it. So while I try to figure out what to do with it, I thought I might as well throw what I have up on my blog, where I have much lower standards. That's what a blog is for, right?

June is Pride Month, so it seems like good timing.


Why I Am an Ally

I’ve known ever since I was a young boy that I was attracted to girls. I love the female form: their curves, their voices, their faces, their hair, even their hands and feet.

I know this is not a courageous thing for a man to admit. It reminds me of the Onion headline: “Area Man Has Naked Lady Fetish.” But it’s something that I’d like to establish up front, because I would like to explain why I am a staunch advocate for gay rights.

As a liberal, there are lots of issues that I can get behind. I could attend anti-war protests. I could rail against genetically modified food. I could get all up in your face about the PATRIOT Act.

Yeah, I care about those things, but they’re not issues that I’m passionate about. The issue the really sticks in my craw, the one that gets my blood pumping, is why homosexuals can’t get married. This despite the fact that there are many other issues that have a much more direct impact on my life. I mean, I never have to worry about the state or society recognizing my relationships. So why do I care so much?

The first time I realized that I did care was when I was in high school. Some friends speculated about whether a classmate of ours was gay or not. We discussed the evidence, which for 16-year-old boys was all assumptions and hearsay. Finally, I said, “So what? Would it change your opinion of him if he was gay?” They said, “Of course it would!”

To back up their position, they explained, “It’s a sin.”

Pul-leeeeze, as Dan Savage would say. These were guys who would have lied, cheated, and stolen if it would have gotten them laid, but now when we start talking about dudes getting with dudes they suddenly become paragons of piety? What I realized from that conversation was that, huh, I guess I did have an opinion about gays, and huh, who knew that my friends were such homophobes?

A few years later, in college, there was a big controversy over a letter written to the school paper. Some deeply homophobic asshat wrote a screed against homosexuality, ending it with his wish that all gays would “move to California, get AIDS, and die.” This letter bothered me. A lot. I couldn’t stop thinking about how offensive it was. I lost sleep and stayed up late writing an impassioned response. Again, I had to ask myself, why did I care so much?

Of course, an obvious reason for my reaction would be that I was a closet-case myself. Who else would be so bothered about an issue that didn’t seem to concern him? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, and even did my share of experimentation in college, but I always come back to the same conclusion: I love women.

Over the years I have made many gay friends and got involved in gay causes. I read gay books and go to gay lectures. Two of my favorite writers are David Sedaris and Dan Savage. I can’t explain my interest in gay culture, but it’s there. Despite my enduring interest in the ladies, I am a friend of the Friends of Dorothy.

A while back I was reading a book, Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever by Joel Derfner. It’s a humorous book, but in one serious passage he explains how being gay affects everything he does. This line jumped out at me: “I believe that the desire to love or be loved is the strongest force on earth.”

I agree. I’ve always been a romantic. The one consistent goal I’ve had throughout my life is to find a partner, a snugglebunny, a soul mate. I’ve been lucky enough to experience that connection on a handful of occasions, enough to know that nothing really compares to it. A lot of my single friends are perfectly happy with their independent lifestyle, and I can appreciate that, but it’s not my ultimate goal. The desire to love and be loved is certainly the strongest force in my life.

Coming from that perspective, you can imagine how offensive it is to me that people would seek to suppress in others the need to love and be loved. I consider the desire for companionship as much a part of the human condition as the desire for food, shelter, and safety. We are social pair-bonding animals. To deny someone such a basic need is an affront to whatever god (or natural forces) gave you the capacity to love in the first place.

What’s most frustrating about this is, it is the civil rights issue that is the easiest to solve. It requires no effort or sacrifice whatsoever. You don’t have to stop a war or solve hunger problems or build up an infrastructure. Ending slavery, for example, at least had economic consequences. But there is absolutely no practical impediment to denying gays marriage licenses. There’s no argument against it that makes any logical or legal sense.

All you have to do is recognize love. Anyone who considers herself a romantic, who acknowledges the fundamental need for love in the human heart, should open their mind to it as well.

Where does the love come from?


For resources on how to be an ally yourself, see the UP Center of Champaign County website:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I recently reconnected with a friend on Facebook. (The Universal Friend Reconnector and Love Broker.) A week later, I bought a compost bin. An hour after I set up said compost bin in my back yard, I checked Facebook. My friend posted something asking if her FB friends would be interested in composting advice. She had no idea I'd just bought a bin-- just set it up an hour earlier!-- so the timing seemed too coincidental.

It must be a sign! The Universe wants us to bond over composting! (Or as one friend said, maybe it means we need to dump the leftovers on our past relationship to let it decompose for a while.)


I attended a lecture/luncheon at the university a few weeks ago. I made a new friend-- it turned out we had a mutual acquaintance. That wasn't a huge coincidence. I know lots of people, and the subject of the lecture insured that like-minded people would be there.

Here's the coincidence. In trying to set up a lunch date with my new friend, we were discussing schedules. She said it would have to be next week, because the week after that she was going to NC to help her parents move. I'd been planning a trip for a few weeks now to go to NC with my brother to help my dad move. I said, "You won't believe this, but I'm going to NC (Wilmington) that same week to help my dad move." I asked her, where in NC will you be? Answer: Wilmington!

So we're both going to be in the same place, 870 miles away from where we live, at the same time, doing the same thing-- helping our respective parents move.

We agreed that this was a weird, ridiculous coincidence. My Universe-Sign-o-Meter was off the charts! This must MEAN something!

It didn't.


I don't really believe in signs from the Universe. We are pattern-seeking animals, so we often find patterns that aren't there. Usually what we see as "signs" are simply things we wanted to see in the first place. Things that have been on our mind.

And when you think about it, coincidences are not as amazing as you think. In the first example, I got interested in composting in the first place because of this particular friend. And it was the first warm spring day, on a weekend, when people would have things like gardening on the brain.

I was talking about this to a friend and she sent me this video. As the summary says: "A poor understanding of probability leads many people to put forward supernatural explanation for events that are far more common than they think. This video shows how probability theory is sufficient to explain even seemingly remarkable coincidences."

I love scientific shit like that.


Because I always find things in patterns of three, here's another coincidence I noticed this week.

Whenever I drive to my hometown to see family, I drive through West Lafayette, IN. Just North of Lafayette, as you're coming into town, is a street sign that says Nikole Dr. I have an ex named Nikole, with the same unusual spelling. The street sign right after Nikole Drive is Debbie Drive. I have a sister named Debbie (same spelling.)

I don't know what that coincidence is supposed to signify, other than the developer who built this particular neighborhood also knew a Debbie and a Nikole. And apparently a Donna and a Mark. And a North Connie and a South Connie.

Although these street names are, in a literal sense, signs, they are not Signs from the Universe.