World Weary

“Everything worth saying has already been said; everything worth writing has already been written.”

hieroglyphicsI’ve loved this quote ever since I first read it, in one of the Will Durant’s volumes on Civilization.  It’s pithy, and it brilliantly captures that world weariness that you sometimes feel when you’re on the treadmill at work and you feel like there is nothing new under the sun and you’re absolutely going to scream if somebody walks into your office and gives you another mundane chore.

But here’s the really great thing about that perfect quote — it was penned by some Egyptian writer in about 2100 B.C.  That’s centuries before Moses and the books of the Old Testament, centuries before the Greek Civilization and the Roman Empire, and millennia before the Renaissance, the writings of Shakespeare, and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.  So whoever wrote that wonderful statement was dead wrong.  There were new things to write, there were new things to say, there were new things to do and new ideas to discover and new things to invent.  That was true in 2100 B.C., and it is still true, today.

It’s a pretty good quote to think of when you’ve had one of those days.

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No Enemy But Bread

Bread, thou art mine enemy!

I came to this galling realization by the confluence of two events.  The first was seeing a photo of LeBron James after following a low-carb diet for the summer.  He’d lost weight and looked great.  The second was putting on a bathing suit for the first time this summer and passing a mirror.

So I thought, say, maybe I should check out this low-carb thing!  I’m not saying that following a low-carb diet would make me look like LeBron James — we’re both from Akron, sure, but he’s a lot taller than I am — but the vast expanse of pulpy flesh I saw in the mirror certainly indicates I need to lose a few stone, pronto. 

On a low-carb diet, you’re supposed to eat meat, eggs, and cheese.  Check!  You’re supposed to eat fruit and nuts.  Check!  You’re supposed to eat vegetables.  Ugh, really?  You’re not supposed to eat bread and crackers.  Wait, what?  Yep, I read it right — any wheat, barley, rye or gluten grain, whether in bread, pasta, or cracker form, is to be strictly avoided.

This sucks!  I love bread and just about any form of baked goods.  I crave crusty artisanal breads, steaming dinner rolls, flaky biscuits, stone-ground crackers, and crumbly muffins.  Heck, I even like a plain piece of toast with a glass of milk.  And having to avoid bread really limits the lunch-time options.  If you eliminate sandwiches you’ve effectively cut out about about 90 percent of the available noon-hour venues.  Following a low-carb approach in the white-collar world will be a challenge.

Ironic, isn’t it?  Archaeologists and researchers believe that bread and beer are two of the crucial building blocks of the human march to civilization.  Now we’ve got to avoid those two dietary items that helped to pull us out of the hunter-gatherer phase unless we want to look like bloated beluga whales.  I’m going to try, but I’m really going to miss crunching through the crust.

The Horror Of Chemical Weapons

There is something particularly horrific about chemical weapons — which is why the reports of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens are especially appalling.

It seems odd to argue that one way of inflicting death is “better” or more civilized than another, and a massacre of unarmed people is a massacre whether it is accomplished by gunfire or some other means.  And yet . . . the use of chemical weapons seems to be uniquely wanton, indefensible and barbaric.  The indiscriminate way in which poison gas reaches its victims, and the ugly and painful circumstances of the resulting death, with victims convulsing and foaming at the mouth, all reflect a murderous mindset of a government that no longer feels bound by the conventions of modern society and will lash out and kill without cause or purpose.

Any government that would use chemical weapons on its own citizens, killing innocent women and children in the process, has lost any pretense of legitimacy.  I’ve written before of how the United Nations has become a hollow force in the modern world, incapable of preventing mass killings or effectively shielding those unfortunates who trust in its promises of protection.  The Syrian situation may be the acid test, however.  If the UN cannot lead effective international action against a criminal government that has used chemical weapons against its own people, why should it exist at all?

Losing The Pyramids And The Sphinx

Egypt is the latest Middle Eastern country teetering on the brink of chaos.  Each day brings fresh reports of battles between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and dozens of new deaths on the streets of Cairo.

I can’t fully appreciate the religious, political, and social issues that are playing out in Egypt.  I can understand, however, what a loss it is for the world that Egypt has become a place that is not safe to visit.  It means that many people will never see the Great Pyramid, the Sphinx, or the other relics of the ancient Egyptian civilization along the Nile.

That loss is a terrible tragedy.  The Sphinx, the pyramids, and the temples of the pharaonic era are the greatest surviving sites of our ancient past.  They are not merely historical sites, but a tangible link to the early development of human culture.  Their very existence shows what our forebears were capable of, even if we don’t quite understand how they were built thousands of years ago.  Their immense age, and their equally immense significance, are the reasons why standing in their presence on the Giza plain is such an awesome experience, and why so many people, myself included, have long dreamed of making the journey to Egypt to have that experience some day.

But not now.  Although the pull of the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings is enormous, it is not irresistible — not when a visit puts you at risk of finding yourself in a mob of angry, screaming men or confronting soldiers ready to fire at any moment.  That means, for me at least, that the pyramids and Sphinx are lost for now, and I don’t know when, or even if, they will ever be safe to visit in my lifetime.  That reality makes me very sad.

To-Do Lists And The March Of Civilization

My lovely wife keeps a to-do list.  It’s several pages of single-spaced, detailed information about the duties ahead, designed to keep her on task and fully aware of all impending appointments.

IMG_4782Most of us keep to-do lists, of one sort or another.  We need them and, well, we like them.  We enjoy writing things down and then crossing them off with a flourish, and feeling a surge of accomplishment as we do so.  We also know that if we don’t keep track of this stuff in our complicated worlds, we’ll forget something important.  So, we walk a fine line between trying to account for all of our duties and obligations without ending up with a list so long that it sends us into a spiral of soul-crushing despair.  It’s also important to distinguish between what is immediately achievable, and therefore suitable for a to-do list, and what is not.

“Lose 30 pounds” isn’t really a proper to-do list item.

As our species moved beyond hunter-gatherer status into settlements, the need for reminders became apparent.  I suspect that writing was develop precisely so that early humans could prepare the first crude to-do list.  Somewhere in the Valley of Kings, waiting to be unearthed by archaeologists, are clay jars of papyrus to-do lists for the Pharoah Ramses II prepared by ancient Egyptian scribes.  The hapless citizens of Pompeii likely were buried by volcanic ash because the Roman who was supposed to be watching Mount Vesuvius was preoccupied with preparing a to-do list instead.

As the world has become more technological, to-do lists have become more advanced and have proliferated.  In the ’80s and ’90s, the hyper-organized among us became addicted to using Franklin day planners to chart and control their activities.  Then, with the advent of personal computers, and Google calendar and electronic task lists, to-do lists moved into the digital realm.  Now they also appear on our smart phones, using gentle chimes or marimba music and flashing messages to remind us of impending meetings.  Soon, I expect, Apple will develop an Apple Nagger app that will remind us, in increasingly insistent fashion, that we have just got to do something.

I ask you:  how many of us have to-do lists that begin with a statement like “Check to-do list”?

Farmers On The Move

How did humans stop wandering and start farming?  It’s a crucial question, because farming allowed our ancestors to move beyond itinerant lifestyles into more permanent cultures.  When farming was adopted, and people saw the benefits of having food at the ready, early humans put down roots (pun intended), established long-term structures, and began to defend their territory and protect their possessions.  Civilization as we know it was the ultimate result.

There are two competing theories.  One is that early farmers migrated from their home area and brought their seeds, tools, and farming concepts with them.  The other posits that hunter-gatherers saw the benefits of farming and decided to adopt the farming lifestyle.  The latter theory seems a bit far-fetched, because it’s hard to imagine hardy hunter-gatherers appreciating the benefits of farming and radically changing their transient ways.

Now DNA studies have lent support to the former theory and indicate that farming was spread through Europe by migrants.  The study found that a Stone Age farmer was genetically distinct from hunter-gatherers of that era, and suggests that farming began in the area now known as Turkey and spread north and west, as farmers looked for tillable acreage where their crops could thrive.  The study also suggests that modern Europeans have more genes of the early farmers than they do of the hunter-gatherers.

In short, the farmers won the Darwinian contest.  Their lifestyle might have been boring compared to that of the hardy hunter-gatherers, but with their steady diets, domesticated animals, and focus on building for a better harvest next year, they were more likely to survive and pass down their genes.

Into The Office Fragrance Cloud Of Death

For much of history, human beings were routinely exposed to a riotous collection of disgusting and offensive smells.  Whether it was the reek of long-unwashed bodies, the pungent tang of rotting food, the odor of barnyard creatures, or the scents inevitably produced by the combination of people, food, and water, civilization basically stank.  Strong perfumes were developed largely to allow the wealthy to mask the awful stench of daily existence.

In the modern world, we don’t have that problem.  Thanks to toilets, showers, deodorant soaps, refrigerators — and especially Febreze — we live in a largely odor-free world.  Why, then, do some people at the office wear fragrances so powerful you’d think they lived in Elizabethan times and had to walk through streets littered with offal and the debris thrown out by the tanner?  Those are the people who are given wide berth and seem to walk the halls in a mobile no-contact zone.

I admit that I don’t exactly have a finely honed sense of smell.  I’m sure I don’t fully savor the delicate fragrance of well-cooked food or the bouquet in a glass of fine red wine.  So when I encounter scents so powerful that even my suboptimal nostrils feel scalded and the gag reflex starts to kick in, it’s fair to say that an unfortunate line has been crossed.

Because I don’t have the scent detection abilities of a basset hound, I hesitate to comment on the odors that people have selected as their signature fragrances — yet I feel I must.  One individual seems to bathe in a vat of some kind of roadkill stew that is just beginning to turn.  Another apparently rolls in kitchen spices as part of the morning routine.  And, by the way, even the most nuanced floral scents smell like a cheap Glade knock-off when liberally applied from head to toe.

So please, if you must wear a fragrance, go easy when your index finger is on the nozzle of the perfume vial or the Old Spice bottle.  Your co-workers, and their overwhelmed noses, will appreciate it.