© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

There is no normal

adams360The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
DOUGLAS ADAMS

Oh I talk a good game about being awake. It’s part of almost every talk and workshop I do. But most of the time, like everybody, I’m fast asleep to our bizarre, fantastic situation.

Example: We all emerged into the world from our mother’s bodies. We don’t think much about that because it’s always been true. My kids think that pulling up a YouTube video on an iPhone in a moving car is nice, but it’s not incredible, since they can’t remember ever not being able to do that.

I’m the same with things that have always been true. Like the whole Mom-As-Portal thing.

There are other things that I haven’t always known, and you’d think I could hang on to the wonder of those at least. Like the fact that the gold in my wedding ring was made in a dying star, or that I’m related to my lawn, and not just by marriage. And that every bit of me has been around since the beginning of time. Not always quite so well-organized, and not always on this planet, but every bit has been somewhere since the Big Bang.

I contain 60,000 miles of blood vessels. I put that number into my head through my eyes about seven years ago and it stuck because I liked it enough to “remember,” whatever that means. When I needed it just now, I found it in my head and made it come out through my fingers. Don’t know how. Yet I make my living doing that all day.

I try to keep my kids (who are half me and half my wife) awake as much as possible. Every time Delaney and I (two pieces of the universe that woke up) step outside to go to the bus stop, there’s something cool in the sky. Like you know, the sky. We talk about it by using our throats and mouths to make the air wiggle, which in turn makes little bones and hairs in our ears wiggle, which our brains understand.

I get this perspective back for three minutes at a time, then lose it for months. I should be paralyzed with wonder all the time. But I forget.

This past weekend I did a couple of events in Grand Rapids, Michigan, hosted by CFI. A great time, and I left feeling groovy. But what was supposed to be a quick transfer at O’Hare turned into a four-hour gate-wait when my flight to Atlanta was cancelled. I was rebooked on a flight to Dulles, which left an hour late, causing me to miss my connection to Atlanta by four minutes. I had to spend a five-hour night in a DC hotel before hopping an early flight home.

The next morning I landed in Atlanta, surly and exhausted, 22 hours after I’d left Grand Rapids. I’d had more than enough of airports and planes.

But as we taxied to the gate, something incredible happened out the window. Not 200 feet away, an absolutely enormous metal tube with wings, filled with people, suddenly jumped into the sky.

I’m not kidding.

You’d think such a thing would make the news. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it happens over 95,000 times a day all over the world. Here it is compressed into a minute. Look carefully:

Once you get started, you can completely lose yourself in slack-jawed astonishment at the world around us. Not to worry — the anesthetic of familiarity will drag you back to the illusion of normal.

As soon as you get back, start planning your next vacation.

richard-dawkinsAfter sleeping through a hundred million centuries, we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with colour, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings.
RICHARD DAWKINS, “The Anaesthetic of Familiarity,” from Unweaving the Rainbow

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This was written on Wednesday, 02. March 2011 at 18:47 and was filed under My kids, Parenting, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Yes. Beautiful.
    Just what I needed to hold me through the endless last gasps of winter until spring!
    I will look around at all the “ordinary” wonders in this extraordinary world! (And I will probably forget to notice again all too quickly!).
    Thanks for the reminder, Dale!

    Comment: niftywriter – 02. March 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  2. And they say atheists have no sense of wonder!

    Comment: DwayneA – 02. March 2011 @ 8:21 pm

  3. It is pretty much spring here in NC.
    The sexually reproductive portions of plants are filling the air with scents, pollen and color.
    Birds are nesting, doing their own part to continue the species.
    As buds break on dormant stems watch life emerge in riotous abandon before it progresses to apparent summer stasis.
    Warm days bring out newly hatched insects ready to mate, produce young and die quickly.
    Look up. Look down. Listen. Slow down enough to enjoy life; our world with all its amazing delights.

    Comment: Lynn Wilhelm – 02. March 2011 @ 8:49 pm

  4. Ah, the feeling when reality hits you like a winning lottery ticket. It reminds me of a great youtube video by philhellenes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6w2M50_Xdk , transcript: http://zepfanman.com/2010/11/science-saved-my-soul-transcript/ ).

    Waking op from the anaesthetic of familiarity is not just a trivial but nice byproduct of atheism, I think this is of vital importance. If there is something like the meaning of life, then this is as close as it gets.

    Comment: Jacco – 03. March 2011 @ 7:55 am

  5. Well, after reading this first thing in the morning, I think it’s going to be a wondrous day. Thanks!

    Comment: Michelle Galo – 03. March 2011 @ 8:16 am

  6. An excellent reminder to keep our eyes wide open!

    I wouldn’t even mind so much that the reply of most religious folk to bits like the quoted ones from Adams and Dawkins is an irrationally certain boast that “God did it,” if it weren’t for all the evil-producing dogma that almost always goes along with that idea.

    For my part, I’ve been flying one or another of those little yellow dots, which look like big aluminum tubes at closer range, for about thirty years now. These days, I’m usually on one of the ones – a Boeing 777 – going East across the Atlantic at night and West again in the daylight. And while frustrating and maddening experiences like Dale endured on his way back from Michigan have been a big part of my life for all those years, from the big windows in the pointy end of the tube I’ve watched thunderstorms boil from above their tops, seen the aurora stretch across the horizon, watched the light of a full moon splay across giant decks of clouds as it rose up like a blob in a lava lamp from beneath them, and lots of other wonders.

    So many things are like that, in which the struggles seem to be payment for the marvels and wonderful mysteries, no? Maybe like being a parent?
    On that, btw, has anyone seen the Temple Grandin movie?
    Recommended highly from this corner.

    Comment: Brad – 03. March 2011 @ 8:35 am

  7. I’m the mom of an almost-two-year-old. The whole world is brand new to him, and I get a vicarious thrill from seeing it through his eyes. As I try to interpret and explain things to him, I find myself examining the ordinary in a new light. Our world is pretty amazing and we are (in my opinion) the luckiest human beings in history. I love how being a parent makes me aware of that, every single day.

    Comment: han – 03. March 2011 @ 9:37 am

  8. Your comment on flying reminds me of a clip of the comedian Louis CK on Conan O’Brien where he talks about how “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk

    “[People say,] ‘…they made us sit there on the runway for 40 minutes. We had to sit there.’ Oh really, what happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?…Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, ‘oh my God, wow.’ You’re flying, you’re, you’re sitting in a chair in the sky. But it doesn’t go back a lot. And it smells.”

    Comment: jtradke – 03. March 2011 @ 11:32 am

  9. Thanks so much for the wake up call today. We need to remind ourselves – it’s way too easy to forget!

    Comment: lcrowely – 03. March 2011 @ 11:46 am

  10. Anyone who ever says that Dawkins is shrill or obnxious obviously has never read a word he’s written. I personally have been comforted several times by his “We will die, and that makes us the lucky ones…” quote with recent deaths in the family.

    But I disagree with the title of your post. There is a normal, and it is acheived again after you die. When your molecules, your chemistry, your electricity, no longer are aware of itself it is a return to normalacy. As from where we came, we are returning to the state of the remaining observable universe – a part of it, interconnected, but unaware of that connection or even the awareness of its own existence.

    AbbyNormal brains indeed.

    Comment: TomZ – 03. March 2011 @ 2:44 pm

  11. Ooh, that’s perfect, Tom. That’s the normal.

    Comment: Dale – 03. March 2011 @ 3:00 pm

  12. I’m glad someone else mentioned Louis CK here. Now every time someone asks me, “How was your flight?” I respond with, “I partook of the miracle of flight.” It feels a lot better than complaining about delays and airports.

    Comment: lexicakes – 03. March 2011 @ 5:06 pm

  13. “I partook of the miracle of flight.” Totally stealing this! Love it!

    Also love Tom’s description of normal. I agree (and think that the truth is far more glorious than the mythical consolations of religions – even if we are unlikely to be able to consciously appreciate it).

    Comment: niftywriter – 03. March 2011 @ 6:37 pm

  14. One dark night in the country I lay on my back on the ground and was able to look OUT (rather than up) at the moon and stars.

    Comment: JoelJ – 03. March 2011 @ 8:59 pm

  15. I enjoyed this piece very much, but since I noticed a small nit, I feel a compulsion to go ahead and pick it.

    I try to keep my kids (who are half me and half my wife) awake as much as possible.

    This is probably just poetic license, but if your kids were really half you and half your wife, evolution would grind to a halt (at least in the way that we know it for sexually reproducing organisms). Darwin was aware of this, and I’m sure you are too, Dale. Anyway, as an educator and a pedant I feel it is worthwhile drawing attention to these minor points. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

    Comment: Hamilton Jacobi – 04. March 2011 @ 1:35 am

  16. Awesome post, think you might enjoy this…

    “So here’s a list of some of my favorite magical powers:”

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/ve/mundane_magic/

    Comment: MBlume – 04. March 2011 @ 2:36 am

  17. @jtradke: That Louis CK bit is absolutely perfect. I’d never seen it before. Thanks.

    @Hamilton J: A nit well and truly picked!

    @MBlume: Very much enjoyed. And proof that everything has already been said, and very often better than I ever could. “Vibratory Telepathy.” Exactly.

    Comment: Dale – 04. March 2011 @ 6:07 am

  18. Thank you so much for the reminder. I lost a friend to cancer today, and days like today make it harder to see the wonder in life.

    Comment: sterre – 05. March 2011 @ 10:15 pm

  19. It is amazing, isn’t it.

    Comment: Cavatica – 06. March 2011 @ 3:15 pm

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