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The Nine Billion Names of God
That’s the title of an old short story by Arthur C. Clarke. He assigns Tibetan monks the task of compiling and transcribing those nine billion names. At the time of the story, they’ve already been at it for thousands of years, and just as they’re finishing up…well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

No matter; I have some questions for those monks. First, did you proofread the list for spelling? I’m guessing God will notice if even one of the nine bil is wrong. Second, did you use an appealing, easily readable font? You can’t go wrong with Times New Roman, I suppose, but how about Baskerville Old Face for a hint of understated omnipotence? And third, are you sure that your list includes every name ever assigned to God? I have no doubt that it includes Yahweh and Allah and Krishna and all of your top gods. You couldn’t have overlooked those.

But does it include, for instance, Jesus H. Christ? One might be tempted to dismiss this offering as nothing more than an oath of angry frustration, one that takes the Lord’s name in vain. But what does that mean exactly — take the Lord’s name in vain? That you gave him a shout out and he didn’t hear it? That he did hear it and ignored you? That’s what doing something “in vain” means, isn’t it? To try it and fail? I don’t get it.

Still, it must mean something. It’s one of the commandments, after all. Does it refer to cursing in which God is invoked, as most people would conclude? I don’t think so. Do you really think God is going to establish the Ten Most Important Rules Ever and waste one on outlawing “God damn it” or “Jesus H. Christ”? If he did, gosh, gee, golly, cripes, crackers, jeemineez, holy smoke, goldang it, dad gummit, and jumpin’ jehosaphat would also be proscribed. God would not be so stupid as to see these as anything other than poorly disguised curses. In fact, he might be even more offended at being taken for an easily duped deity.

So I’m saying add Jesus H. Christ to the list — right along with all those cute, fake-reverent euphemisms for God. Whatever that commandment means, it can’t possibly be about swearing, unless it’s swearing falsely, and Jesus H. Christ is nothing if not an honest expression of emotion.

By the same token, I’m not sure Christ on a crutch should be in there. It could be tagged as redundant, and we don’t want to be caught padding just to get to nine billion. The same goes for Kee-rist and hey, Zeus! Jiminy Crickets, moreover, should be disallowed simply to avoid confusion with the famous insect.

I don’t know what standards guided Arthur C. Clarke’s monks used in separating real names from pretenders, but I’m hoping they opted for a liberal, inclusive attitude. I think a genuine Supreme Being would be secure enough in his own identity that he wouldn’t mind a few nicknames or even a curse or two in his name. After all, any publicity is good publicity. Just be sure to spell all nine billion right…and steer clear of Comic Sans.
Brainbox
I have a memory of a video that depicted what happens to a brain during a concussion. I briefly tried to find it online but then thought better of it. The chilling memory is enough. The sight of that poor, defenseless organ sloshing violently around inside the skull (the result of, let’s say, a collision in football) was enough, back then, to make me want to curl up on the couch and never go outside again.

That’s because the slamming and buffeting is so extreme you’d conclude that even the slightest bump on the head could send you into a permanent vegetative state.

That would be an exaggeration, of course. Despite its squishiness, the brain has proven (over a hundred thousand years or so) to be pretty resilient. It’s floating in spinal fluid, and that goo is viscous enough to provide some cushioning at moments of impact. Still, it’s not as if the thing is tied down or anything. It bangs around in there like a clapper in a bell. What it really needs is some serious padding.

Well, not “need” so much, but if we want to keep watching football, something has to be done to stop all the concussions. Otherwise, I am convinced they’ll have to ban this ridiculously dangerous sport. I guess we could wait around until players with brain padding evolve naturally, but so far that process has been painfully slow.

If nature won’t do what needs to be done, then human science will have to step into the breach. I propose that in the summer between the senior year of high school and the beginning of the freshman year of college, potential pigskinners undergo brain surgery designed to lessen the effects of violent head trauma. I see a total removal of the skull, followed by the installation of a suitable padding material, then replacement of the cranium with any extensions that might be necessary.

For the padding, we might try latex foam. It certainly makes for a comfy bed. Bubble wrap could work too, especially if it were made from the finest of space-age plastics. And if we can’t afford space age, then why not use those Styrofoam packing peanuts? Whatever it takes to save our young people from crippling brain injury — while allowing us to watch them use their heads as battering rams.
Q & A
If you came here looking for answers, then you’ve come to the wrong place. I don’t have any answers; unless, that is, you will accept questions as answers.

Let me explain. According to my personal philosophy, the path to wisdom is traveled not by seeking answers but by asking questions. If you start getting solid answers to those questions, then your questions are not good enough, and you must find better ones. Answers aren’t what you’re looking for at all, according to this view, but rather the enlightenment provided by diligently seeking those answers.

I admit that this philosophy is strictly of the dime store Zen variety, but at this point, it’s all I’ve got. I continue to go with it even though I recognize it as a cop out. It tries to finesse my humblebrag about not having answers but only killer questions, but I can’t fool me. I’m really just looking for answers.

Furthermore, the path to wisdom is proving to be a long one, and it seems to get longer every day. In fact, I’m not even on the path; I’m on some kind of frontage road, I think. Sometimes I can almost hear the hum of the traffic on the wisdom Interstate, but I’ll be damned if I can find an on-ramp.

At this point, all I can do is trust the system and keep searching for better questions. It may be a vain search, but as I have said, it’s the only theory I’ve got. That’s why I’m putting out the call right now. I need questions — good questions. Yes, I’m talking to you — help me find my way to the wisdom Interstate.

And please don’t come at me with this “Why am I here?” stuff or the old “Who am I?” and “What is the meaning of life?” chestnuts. I’ve never had much use for that kind of me-centered cornballery. I want new, pithy, stunningly fundamental questions — or nothing at all.

And if you’re already on the Interstate, maybe even sailing along in the carpool lane, I’m especially hopeful of hearing from you. I’d be grateful for any wisdom you’d care to send my way.

Just make sure your answer is in the form of a question.
Peanuts
Mark Tatulli has guts. He draws the comic strip Lio, which is among the first I turn to on the daily comics page. One reason I like him is that he pushes the envelope: plays with the space he is granted in unusual ways, ventures to the dark side for a lot of his humor, is not afraid to be utterly absurd, and goes wordless a lot of the time. He’s even dared to give the title character (a young boy) a father but no mother. Mark breaks the rules and tries to expand the limits of one of the most staid and predictable of all cartoon genres. That takes guts.

It now appears that his moxie has grown even larger. Recently, he’s had the cojones to take on perhaps the most hallowed icon of daily cartoons: Peanuts. He doesn’t diss Charles Schultz or the strip itself. He simply points out, in a darkly humorous way, that the strip is still running even though a new episode hasn’t been published since February 13, 2000. In case you don’t know, that’s because Schultz died that same week.

I give Charles Schultz and whoever makes the decisions for his estate full credit for not selling the right to continue producing the strip to someone else. Some strips are so intertwined with the personality and worldview of their creators that the two have to go out together. And I certainly don’t blame Schultz’s kin for making money off the rerunning of old strips. But it does seem like a waste.

Peanuts used to be one of the strips I went to first when the paper arrived. Not anymore, though; I bypass it now in favor of the new (and perhaps lesser) work of living cartoonists. If I want to read Peanuts, I can go buy a collection. When Garry Trudeau takes a holiday from drawing Doonesbury and runs old strips instead, I don’t read those either.

If Bill Watterson allowed a similar republication of Calvin and Hobbes episodes, I might be tempted to read them again. It was, to my taste, the best daily strip ever drawn. Even in that case, though, I can imagine feeling a little odd doing it. I’ve already read all those cartoons; why not give somebody else a chance? They probably wouldn’t measure up, but I’d still prefer to have the chance to decide for myself. What if the next Calvin or Peanuts is trying to work its way into print and just can’t make it because an old, dead comic strip is in the way?

I’m not talking about me, by the way. I’ve given up on trying to break into that market, but I know there are talented cartoonists out there with something new and unique to offer. We should be given the chance to see their work in print — while we’re all waiting to see the newspaper business evaporate entirely.

I don’t know if Mark Tatulli feels the way I do. He’s probably just making jokes about the other cartoons that appear on the page with his. He parodies strips other than Peanuts, so maybe that’s all it is. Even so, he gets extra points for making fun of a dead comic strip and all its dead characters just because they’re dead.

I guess we’d be depriving him of ripe material by burying Peanuts once and for all. That would be a shame. But I could wish for just a bit more guts from Mark. Perhaps then he would go the extra mile and turn the Peanuts characters into zombies. If he did, I could forgive the presence of that dear, departed strip in my daily newspaper. A brain-eating Charlie Brown might be just the thing to start my day.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee