Friday, April 22, 2011

Notes from the Cave

After working 9 days straight, I finally had a day off today.  But I'm right back tomorrow for a ten hour shift, followed by a 12-hour third shift on Saturday night.  Working a lot of days in a row is bad enough, but the switching back and forth between 1st and 3rd shift really, really sucks.  In short, I'm too old for this shit.

On Sunday afternoon (after I got up from sleeping after working all night), I got all my stuff together to mow the lawn for the first time this year.  As many of you know, we sold our last house in June of 2009, and had been in an apartment since then, up until February of this year.  So this was not only the first mow of the year for me, but also the first in about two years.  The lawn equipment had been in storage all that time.

I went out and got new gas cans (the old ones were gone - probably thrown away when we moved), filled them up with gas, then mixed oil into the second container (the weed eater requires a gasoline/oil mix).  Got my mowing outfit on and got prepared to set about mowing for the first time the largest yard that I've ever owned.  I started on the weed eater, and it fired up like normal and all was good.

Then I put the gasoline into the lawn mower.

Almost immediately I saw liquid begin to drip from the filter.  I kept pouring for a few more seconds before I realized that the gasoline was leaking back out.  My first thought was that it was a bad fuel line - maybe dry rot from sitting idle for two years.  But upon closer investigation, I saw that it was actually leaking out of an iron tube connecting from the filter to the engine itself.  Obviously some O-ring or gasket inside the engine has broken and is leaking gasoline.  So not only did I not get my lawn mowed - which was badly in need of it - but I also have to get the damn mower fixed - and it's a relatively new mower.  I think I bought it in 2008, which means I only used it for one season and maybe two months of another.  And, of course, this is the busy season for lawn mower repair.  My father-in-law has his in the shop right now and they told him it would be three weeks.

Tonight I borrowed a neighbor's mower and mowed the front, but the back is still basically a jungle.

Earlier this week, I began working out a new idea for a collection of short fiction.  It's been a while since I've written any fiction, and I've always tended to struggle somewhat with short stories because in many ways they are harder to write than long fiction.  But my idea is based on all the genealogical research I have done on ancestry.com.  There are so many interesting vignettes about ancestors and their life events that they fairly beg to be fictionalized.   So I am going to start a series of short stories - maybe 12 to 16 total - and put them into a collection, yet to be titled, about real people and events from American history.  Rather than writing about famous people and events - which is what informs most historical fiction - these stories will be about average, every day Americans from across 400 years of American history.  Of course I will include a lot of stories about my own ancestors, but I don't want it to be top-heavy with my own family, so I have asked a number of friends and co-workers if I can research their families on ancestry.com to find interesting tidbits to write stories about.  Already I have found several stories from among my friends' family lines that would make for good short stories.  Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if this pans out or if it fizzles into that nebulous world of artistic plans and ideas that never come to fruition.

On the reading front, I finished James Rollins' Altar of Eden - it was typical pop thriller fare, predictable and formulaic as all get out, but entertaining enough for a week's read.  I've now moved on to the second book of Sharon Kay Penman's 12th century trilogy, called Time and Chance.  It picks up pretty much where the first book left off, in the mid 1150's, a few years into the reign of Henry II and his queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It will apparently focus mostly on Henry's relationship, and ultimate falling out, with his chancellor and later Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.  (Click that link for a short 2006 post I made about Becket's murder.)

I've simultaneously started reading a very thick collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling.  For those who don't know, Kipling is one of England's most famous writers, easily the most famous British writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He was born and lived much of his life in British-controlled India, and as such became a prominent voice for the waning days of British imperialism there.  He only wrote a few novels, focusing instead on short stories and poetry - of which he wrote literally hundreds of each.  His most famous collection of short stories, in America anyway, is The Jungle Book.

The very first story in this collection I'm reading is a story from 1885 called The Dream of Duncan Parrenness, and in it is a quote that immediately stood out to me as one of those "great quotes" from literature.  It immediately struck a chord with my own experiences, and I must have read it over five or six times:
Yet there be certain times in a young man's life, when, through great sorrow or sin, all the boy in him is burnt and seared away so that he passes at one step to the more sorrowful state of manhood.
It sort of gives me chills even reading it now again.  He managed, in this one sentence from a relatively obscure story from his early life, to sum up beautifully the universal experience of men reaching adulthood.  It doesn't necessarily happen when you turn 18, or 21, or 25.  But it happens, and once it does, there's no going back.

Have any of you heard of this New York Times bestseller called Heaven is for Real?  I've read about it recently. I guess this kid had a near-death experience at age 4, and now he and his parents (and no doubt a ghost writer) have written a book to give people encouragement about what awaits them after death.  Not surprisingly, the boy's father is an evangelical minister, and the boy's trip to heaven included visits from Jesus and John the Baptist.

What I want to know is this: How come people who have near death experiences always have them within the bounds of their own spiritual heritage?  In other words, how come Christians don't ever experience Muslim or Buddhist heaven, and vice versa, and how come Hindus never see Jesus during their near death experiences?  I might be inclined to believe a near-death experience if it happened to a Christian, but they saw Mohammed, or it happened to a Buddhist, but they saw Jesus, or it happened to a Jew, but they saw Osiris, and then converted to the new religion on the spot.  THAT would be impressive.  A Christian seeing John the Baptist, or a Buddhist seeing Buddha, however, is not so interesting.

Of course, I suppose the reason this book is such a hit is because it happened to this 4-year old who wouldn't have had the same sort of religious knowledge that the rest of us have.  Yet magically he saw Jesus and John the Baptist - figures he undoubtedly would have heard talked about by his minister father and in Sunday School.  Isn't it amazing that he didn't run into Shiva or Mohammed or Zoroaster or Zeus - figures he almost certainly had never heard of?  Again, had this 4-year-old seen Shiva, ultimately leading to the mass conversion from Christianity to Hinduism of his entire family, including his evangelical minster father, THEN I would be mightily impressed.

He also, apparently, met up with a sister he didn't know he had, learning only later that his mother had miscarried a girl (how she could have known it was a girl, so early in a pregnancy, is anyone's guess, I suppose).  Of course, even though he may not have been consciously aware, at age 4, of his mother's past miscarriage, it's a virtual certainty that he had heard his parents talk about it and had stored it away subconsciously.

But then I suppose I'm just a jaded old skeptic who likes to pee on people's parades.

Perhaps I should read the book before criticizing it - I'm sort of breaking one of my own rules here - but I simply have never seen or read anything to make me suppose that near-death experiences are likely to be anything other than a function of neural activity in a dying and oxygen-starved brain, which causes people to see familiar things.  These stories are interesting, even amazing, but I haven't ever been persuaded to suppose there is anything supernatural going on.

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