The Ends of Eras

After today’s lunch, I set the communal coffeepot to brewing in the break room closest to my desk. Someone whose face is familiar but whose name I’ve never heard was heating up her lunch in a nearby microwave and commented, “Coffee in the afternoon? Uh-oh.”

I responded, “I’m an addict, I acknowledge this.”

A few moments later, I had the thought to say, “The last socially-acceptable addiction, and that will likely change in our lifetime,” but it was one of those thoughts that came just a few beats too late to avoid being awkwardly inserted into a conversation, or as a more apt description of this exchange, a smattering of small talk. I lack the sociability to maintain small talk with complete strangers and small talk lacks appeal with my friends.

At some point in my life, I will likely be the crotchety old man still shakily sipping the imported poison his nurses insist will be the death of him. I will be the last vestige of a time when the drug caffeine was as ubiquitous as the smog-producing internal combustion engine. My grandmother was born before the drug cocaine was completely criminalized in the United States; just a few years before her birth, cocaine was still sold as a “pep pill” to give its users energy. If this correlation to coffee in the late-20th and early 21st centuries isn’t clear enough, let me point to the Folgers Coffee jingle, “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup (in your cup).”

I am, of course, only speculating that I will see the end of socially-acceptable caffeine addiction in my lifetime. To my knowledge, there are no bills being considered by any legislative bodies to criminalize or even regulate caffeine. But there is a common understanding that caffeine is an addictive drug which can be abused in such a way as to harm the human microbiome. I pause in my typing to take another drink of my afternoon coffee.

When do eras begin and end? How do we define an era? Is coffee addiction an era unto itself or is it just one chapter in the era of human chemical dependency? For that matter, is chemical dependency a bug of humanity or a feature? There is archaeological evidence of humans imbibing alcohol, cannabis, tobacco, coca leaves, opiates, and other mood and/or mind altering drugs since time immemorial, some of these even before humans bothered making marks on objects to record thoughts about the world around them, probably colored by whatever drug the writer was using at the time. Coffee as a drug cannot be traced so far back. The only solid evidence of coffee usage goes back to 15th century Africa, though even that does not point to an origin. The story of the 9th century Ethiopian goatherd who tried eating raw coffee beans after seeing his goats leaping joyfully after eating them is probably apocryphal. Coffee, along with Greek philosophy, was spread from the Ottoman Empire into western Europe and, along with Greek philosophy, spurred political and intellectual upheaval.

Maybe the era of coffee began in 15th century Africa and can be separated from the other substances humans have imbibed. Maybe the era of coffee will end in my lifetime and I will be one of the last to mourn its passing. My great-great-grandmother (5 generations ago along my maternal line) died when I was around 5 years old; I still remember her. She dipped snuff (a form of tobacco usage) from the time she was 13 years old to roughly a year before she died. Our family’s mythos includes the idea that she died because, when she was put into a nursing home a year before she died, they took away her snuff. She saw many things which may be called eras begin: cars, air travel, humans landing on the Moon, computers, the Civil Rights movement, two World Wars, proliferation of nuclear power. When she was a child, her family came to Texas in a covered wagon; when she died, there were humans living in low Earth orbit. Much of this may have passed without her notice; I’m not sure. Does an era happen for people who don’t experience it?

John Green, an author of whom I’ve already written, has a podcast called The Anthropocene Reviewed, in which he rates two things that have either affected human life, been affected by human life, or more often, both. Often, Green uses this as a way to talk about history he finds interesting or as a confessional, but behind it all is the idea of the Anthropocene Era, that modern humanity’s millennia roaming the face of the Earth has caused change to the planet on a geological scale, or at least to such a degree as would normally be achievable only by geological events.

Human are not the only animals with language, society, or even technology, though some understandings of these words are too narrow to accept the actions of other animals. But we are the only animals we know of that have developed societies which have developed technologies that allow language to pass so quickly and broadly around the world that new societies are forming new languages faster than new technologies can keep up. If this were the only way in which we humans had developed beyond ourselves, perhaps there would not be sufficient evidence to call our effect an entire era. And if that was all we did and we hadn’t earned an era named after us, perhaps we would not have to worry so much about that era coming to an end.


Story idea

For the uninitiated, there is an older meme known as Rule 34 of the internet: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions. (Reader beware: do not test Rule 34. Whatever you think might be too far-fetched, it’s out there, and if you think it’s not, do you want to find out the hard way that it’s not?)

There is a newer meme similar to Rule 34: There is a subreddit for everything.

Writing prompt: You always thought the idea that there’s a subreddit for everything was a joke. Then you found r/tailcare where humans discuss tips for tail hygiene and maintenance. At first, you think this is maybe a furry thing, but the more you read, you start to suspect these are humans with actual tails. When you pm someone about it, they send their condolences and ask if you’ve seen r/tailectomies, a subreddit for people whose tails have been surgically removed. If this is a subculture or con, it’s too big to have been hidden this well. Something happens that finally clicks: you’ve found a subreddit from an alternate universe.

I Woke Up Writing

People fill each other’s lives, for good or ill. Our present and immediate people fill volume like mountains or area like plains. We are not the furniture of each other’s lives, but the geography. That’s why love and loss can both shake our world.

First and Last Words

Parents often record their child’s first words; entire books compile famous last words or last words of famous people. In John Green’s book, Looking for Alaska, the main character fixates on famous last words; most people can recognize the opening line “Call me Ishmael” whether they’ve read Moby Dick, and those who have read it will know that this is not the true opening line: “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.” As this post is about first lines, perhaps this is as much a point in favor of my thought, since only around 3000 copies of the book sold while Melville lived; perhaps if the novel actually opened with “Call me Ishmael,” his book might have had more commercial success in his lifetime. But I grossly digress.

I am currently rereading The Fellowship of the Rings and I’ve just reached the point where the Fellowship is about to head out from Rivendell. Up to this point, the Dwarf, Gimli, has not spoken in the book. If your only point of contact with this epic tale is in Peter Jackson’s movies, this may seem confused; in that movie, Gimli impulsively speaks up at the Council of Elrond: in response to Elrond saying the ring must be destroyed, Gimli says, “Well, what are we waiting for?” while jumping up and bringing an axe down on the ring. It should come as no surprise that much in the movie changed from the book, but none so much as the characters of the Fellowship members.

Gimli’s first words in the movie reveal who he will be in Jackson’s rendition: a hot-headed warrior whose first instinct is to strike. But Gimli’s first words in the book reveal a sturdier companion. In response to Elrond warning the party that no one should vow to follow the ring-bearer all the way since none can see how dark the road will be, the following exchange is made:

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,” said Gimli.

“Maybe,” said Elrond, “but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.”

“Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,” said Gimli.

“Or break it,” said Elrond

Let’s put this in perspective, because without context, we might think Elrond a coward and Gimli a stalwart and brave friend. Elrond is ancient. The only person at the council older than Elrond is Gandalf, and that’s cheating because Gandalf is a maia, the Middle-Earth equivalent of an angel. But even that is a soft comparison, because Elrond was born ages before the name Gandalf was ever spoken. Elrond saw the fall of Gil-Galad, he saw Ilsildur cut the ring from Sauron’s hand, but well before that, he knew Sauron before Sauron revealed himself as a servant of Melkor.

Elrond is ancient and wise; he remembers darkness and evil that would make an orc’s stomach churn. So when he warns the Fellowship not to vow themselves to the end of the task, he’s trying to highlight their complete lack of context for how bad things are going to be. From an Elven perspective, Gimli is being a hot-head.

A character’s first words in a story should be important, more important than your own first words. A toddler saying “Mama” or “Dada” or “damn the bourgeois capitalists” is only interesting to the child’s parents; the audience of a story won’t care what the character’s first spoken words were (except for that last one; I’d read a story that started with, “To his parents’ chagrin, his first words were neither ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’ but ‘damn the bourgeois capitalists,’ and frankly, they should have been more concerned.”)

If a character’s first words in a story are “Oh, excuse me,” then I expect that character to be a pushover or at least the target of shenanigans for the rest of the story. Arthur Dent’s first words could have been “Oh, excuse me,” and the story would have worked fine. As it was his first spoken words are, in context:

Arthur lay in the mud and squelched at him.

“I’m game,” he said, “we’ll see who rusts firsts.”

The argument could be made that Arthur’s first word in the novel is passively thinking, “Yellow,” several times as he goes through his morning routine, but as well as that proves the idea, I’m focusing on spoken words here.

So when you are reading or hearing a story, listen for the first and last words a character speaks. The last words are more difficult to track and may only be found on the second time through the story, when you can experience it more critically.

Wild Headline Drives Writer to Unthinkable Acts

I just made the unthinkable mistake of reading an article from FOX News’s website, but I can blame my own curiosity over story behind the inflammatory headline: Dozens failed to report [name redacted]’s ‘troubling behavior’ until after Parkland. Right off the bat, this headline stinks of — I don’t know — bullshit? I spent a bit of time trying to come up with a better description (e.g. loaded wording, unnecessary bias), but everything I came up with fell short in some way. Let’s break this down: Read more

John Green

I’m slowly making my way through John Green’s books. Thus far, I’ve read (in this order) Paper TownsTurtles All the Way Down, and I’m currently reading Looking for Alaska. This is not anything like publication order, but as these books aren’t connected, I’m not missing anything on an internal level, but I’m starting to wonder if I’m missing something on a meta-level of John’s corpus (I’m going to break with the convention of using an author’s last name because John’s brother, Hank, is also now a published author, and because my first encounter with the Green brothers was through their work on YouTube, specifically Vlogbrothers, where they begin each video with “Good morning, [the other one’s first name], it’s [day of the week they post their vlogbrother videos]). It need not be pointed out that I frequently use long parentheticals on platforms which do not lend themselves to footnotes (WordPress developers, looking at you).

There’s a lot of depth worth discussion in John’s work, from characters who stay with you to well-written and engaging prose, but what drove me to the blog today is the depth to which John’s stories always drive my mind. I read a couple dozen pages of Looking for Alaska at lunch today and, on my way back to my desk, realized that while I was listening to Bach in my earbuds, Queen was playing in my head, I was thinking about something deep and personal, and already working on solving some of the problems with a current project at work. I basically had four different streams of consciousness, which my inner-monologue chastised as “doing that thing where you go crazy and split your brain into multiple parts.” I responded to that self(?)-chastisement with, “Fortunately, it’s my brain and I can arrange it how I want,” but I immediately questioned that assumption and that’s deeper into the rabbit hole than I want to write about here and now.


Quick Question

Should I move the Words & Things posts to the main blog, or leave them there? I think if I leave them there, I can use the main blog for more focused, thematic articles, and let the W&T page be the random key-punching.

Post-Privacy Generation: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Cybernetics

I was born into a post-privacy generation. This is not to say that my generation has rolled over and accepted this; quite the contrary, many of my peers are outraged by the common invasion, some of them choosing to avoid social media altogether (others of them, seemingly ignorant of the irony, posting on social media about the invasion of privacy). I’ve never been one of those. Read more