Rambow’s Rules for Life

Shortly after my son was born, I began drafting a letter to him — something I hoped he would remember me by long after I was gone that would also help him live the best life possible. The letter included many of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life — advice on how to be happy, healthy, and successful. My hope was that it would help him avoid many of the mistakes I made. For anyone who might be interested, here is the advice. I’ve divided it into three parts: (1) keys to success, (2) keys to happiness, and (3) miscellaneous advice.

KEYS TO SUCCESS

  1. BE INDUSTRIOUS. Let your natural, default state be one in which you are always creating or learning something of value. If you’re always productive, success will be almost automatic, and you’ll never regret how you spent your time. Build things. Write. Learn new skills or languages. Keep a list of things you want to accomplish, and make sure you’re always chipping away at it. Don’t waste any time, because time is the most precious thing you have. This doesn’t mean that you should be a workaholic; quality time with friends and family is vital as well. Relaxation and recreation, in moderation, are not a waste of time; in fact, they can help replenish your well of creativity and make you even more productive — and creative pursuits are a big part of what makes life meaningful.
  2. CULTIVATE USEFUL SKILLS. Skills give you freedom and power. If you’re good at coding, you have the freedom and power to create new software. If you speak a foreign language, you have the freedom and power to live and succeed in a different country and to make friends with people you otherwise wouldn’t even be able to communicate with. Look around and think about what skills you’d like to have. What skills are employers looking for? What skills match your interests, talents, and affinities? What skills will give you the freedom and power to get a good job and earn a good wage? What skills will give you the freedom and power to do the things in life that you really want to do? It’s not just about work; there are plenty of skills apart from work that make life more enjoyable and fulfilling.
  3. BUILD PERSONAL CONNECTIONS. Cultivate and maintain lifelong friendships and business relationships. Always be engaged in your community — at work, at school, in your neighborhood — and make positive contributions while also building useful connections. Help others, and don’t hesitate to seek their help as well. It’s not about using people; it’s about being part of something bigger than yourself — a community that benefits everyone. Make sure the relationships are genuine; care about the people in your network, and learn to speak their love languages. Good relationships will help you not just to be more successful, but to be happier as well — because companionship is another big part of what makes life meaningful.
  4. BE PROACTIVE AND ASSERTIVE. If you want something to happen, make it happen. Don’t wait for opportunities to come your way; rather, actively seek them out and create your own opportunities. Just being good at what you do isn’t enough. People won’t come along and offer you a dream job just because you’re an excellent student. Figure out what you want; then figure out what it will take to get it; and then do it. You have to be willing to take risks. I was never very good at this, and I regret that I didn’t understand earlier what it meant to be proactive. I was a “great” student who always made good grades, and so I always got funneled automatically to the advanced classes at the next level. I made very few decisions on my own. I expected everything to be handed to me automatically because I was a good, hardworking student. But when it came time for me to graduate from college, I didn’t have a plan. Other people had made plans much earlier on: medical school, graduate school, law school, internships, and engineering jobs. While they were starting their dream careers, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. That was a huge mistake — one that I don’t want you to make as well. So, figure out what you want to do, and make it happen.
  5. EXERCISE YOUR MIND. Your intelligence level is not fixed; never stop raising it. Push yourself to master knowledge and skills that are difficult to understand, and you will become smarter. Stay in the “zone of proximal development” — the region where things are neither too easy nor too hard, but challenging enough to make you grow. If you feel that everything you’re doing is easy, then you’re not challenging yourself enough, and you should find more difficult problems to tackle. Actively and intentionally develop your problem-solving, comprehension, and communication skills. Be informed, be discerning, and expose yourself to a variety of viewpoints.
  6. PROTECT YOUR HEALTH. Take good care of your physical and mental health. Poor health is an obstacle to success, because health problems can eat up time, energy, and money that could be better spent on other things. You can’t control everything about your health, but there is plenty you can do to maximize your chances of staying healthy. There are four keys: diet, exercise, sleep, and companionship. Don’t pollute your body with smoke, excessive alcohol, or too much sugar and fat. Don’t eat too much or too little. Play sports that exercise your heart and lungs; lift weights enough to be strong; stretch enough to be flexible. Take care of your appearance so that you will always feel good about the way you look. Get enough sleep so that you’ll be mentally sharp and have plenty of energy. And surround yourself with people who push you to be a better person and make you feel good about yourself. Your health has multiple components, all of which will affect your success; don’t neglect any of those components.
  7. MANAGE YOUR MONEY WISELY. Always spend less than you earn. Whenever you receive money, save and invest a portion of it. Obtain assets, and avoid liabilities. An asset is an investment that brings more money into your pocket. A liability is something that drains money out of your pocket. An expensive car is a liability, not an asset. A fancy house is a liability, not an asset. A stock or mutual fund that grows in value and pays dividends is an asset. A house or condo that you rent out is an asset. Don’t worship money, but manage it wisely so that you’ll always have enough to take care of your family and do things that you enjoy.

Of course, success is not the only important thing in life. There are plenty of highly successful, wealthy people who are miserable, who hate life, and who drag everyone around them down. Don’t be one of those people. Happiness is more important than success or wealth — though of course, success and wealth can make it easier to be happy. Below are some additional principles that will help you to be as happy as possible.

KEYS TO HAPPINESS

  1. Surround yourself with cheerful people who work hard and like to help others. The friends you choose will have a tremendous influence on the kind of person you become. Make sure you’re always surrounded by people who make you a better, happier person. If you surround yourself with unhappy people, then you’ll be unhappy too. If you surround yourself with lazy and unsuccessful people, then you’ll be lazy and unsuccessful. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who are just like the person you want to be, then you will become the person you want to be. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you like the person you are when you’re with someone else, then keep spending time with them. If you don’t like the person you are when you’re with someone else, then stop hanging out with them.
  2. Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be people above you and people below you; people who are faster, and people who are slower; people who are richer, and people who are poorer. If you focus on the people who are “ahead of you” in life, it will be easy to become afflicted by envy, bitterness, and despair. If you focus on the people who are “behind you,” you may be tempted to feel an undeserved sense of superiority and pride. Neither is beneficial. Focus instead on being the best you can be. Take satisfaction in your own unique identity, the special roles that you fill, and the never-ending process of striving to become a better person.
  3. Find enjoyment in your present circumstances. A lot of people spend too much time focusing on what they want next. First, they can’t wait to grow up and become an adult. Then they can’t wait until they finish school. Then they can’t wait until they have a job. Then they can’t wait until they’re married. Then they can’t wait until they have kids. Then they can’t wait until their kids grow up. Then they can’t wait until they retire. Before they know it, their life is over, and they didn’t enjoy much of it because they never savored what they were doing in the present. Satisfaction was always one step ahead of them, so they never reached it. Instead of dwelling on where you want to be next, focus on where you are now. Find enjoyment in the process rather than the goal. If you’re doing the right thing now, you’ll end up in the place where you want to be next.
  4. Hold onto the good, and let go of the bad. Your memories will be your most precious treasures. The ones you choose to focus on will determine whether you are happy or bitter. Every night, as you drift off to sleep, open up your treasure chest of happy memories, and fill your heart with them. Think back on the bad times just enough to learn from them, and then let go of them so that they will never bother you again. This can be difficult to do, since we can’t always control our thoughts; but what we can do is notice negative thoughts when they arise (without passing judgment), notice how they make us feel, and then redirect our attention toward something more positive. Do not try to stop thinking about bad things. (There’s a classic joke about this: If someone tells you not to think about an elephant, they have just made you think of an elephant — and so it is impossible to avoid thinking about an elephant by trying to avoid thinking about one. In the same way, if you are focusing your attention on trying not to think about something painful, then you will necessarily be continuing to think about that painful thing.) Instead, start thinking about something else; the only way to get rid of negative thoughts is by replacing them with something positive. Don’t punish yourself for mistakes you’ve made. If you feel bad about them, then you’ve already learned from them. Let go, and move on.
  5. Never allow bitterness, resentment, contempt, or anger to take root in your mind. Don’t let any event — a horrible illness, the loss of a friend or loved one, or any kind of conflict or tragedy — make you bitter. Your life is too precious and too short to allow any significant part of it to be ruled by bitterness or anger. You may not be able to stop yourself from having these feelings temporarily, but the important thing is that you not let them take root and grow. Notice the bitterness or anger when it arises, and then let go of it and actively replace it with something positive.

Here are some other miscellaneous pieces of advice that I think are extremely valuable. Many of them are things you’ve heard me say many times, and I repeat them here unapologetically. They will also contribute to success and happiness.

OTHER MISCELLANEOUS RULES

  1. Never complain or make excuses, even when there are legitimate complaints and excuses to be made. Complaining is unattractive. If you have a positive attitude and lift others up rather than dragging them down, then people will like you more, and you’ll be happier and more successful. Bad attitudes are contagious; if you get infected by one, try to cure it before you spread it around. And avoid catching a bad attitude from others, just as you would avoid catching a cold from them.
  2. Observe other people carefully, and pay attention to their motives. Do this in both the short term and the long term. It will help you identify dangerous people, and it will also help you make deals with people. If you’re on a bus and you see a woman taking care of her baby, then you know what is motivating her: the desire to keep her baby safe, happy, and healthy. She’s not going to hurt someone else on the bus unless she feels threatened or desperate; and if she does feel threatened or desperate, that’s something you should be able to see. But if there’s a young man who is all by himself and is eyeing everyone else’s bags, purses, and pockets, then maybe he’s looking for something to steal. Pay attention to what people are looking at. Watch their eyes, watch their body language, and listen to their words. Think, what is this person trying to accomplish right now? This habit can be useful in working with other people. If you know what someone really wants, you can make a deal with them; they might be willing to do something for you if you help them get what they want. Just be ethical, and avoid shady deals that will cause trouble.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take risks. This old saying is true: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”Often, it’s worth it to give up something of value to get what you want, just as you might sacrifice a valuable piece in chess in order to win the game. Just be wise, not reckless, in the risks you take and the sacrifices you make.
  4. Be a player in life, not a spectator. Theodore Roosevelt put this idea best in the following quote:
    It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if one fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that one’s place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
  5. Avoid motivated reasoning. “Motivated reasoning” is one of the most harmful things to human society. It undermines truth itself. And yet it is something that we do naturally, so we must watch for it in ourselves and try to avoid it. What is it? It’s the tendency to fabricate logical reasons for believing the things we want to believe. The following statement is counterintuitive but true: Intelligence doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to the truth; rather, it just enables you to construct clever reasons to continue believing the things you want to be true. A man once said to me, “My IQ is just a few points shy of Einstein’s. If you give me any argument against the Bible, I’ll be able to prove it wrong.” All this really meant was that he was committed to using his high intelligence to buttress the dogmas he had already decided were true before examining the evidence. His mistake was this: He never approached the Bible with an open mind and used his intelligence to consider the question, “What is actually true?” Instead, he was tackling the question, “How do I interpret the evidence in a way that won’t conflict with my cherished beliefs?” If he had been born into a Muslim family, he would have said the same about Islam: “If you give me any argument against the Qur’an, I’ll be able to prove it wrong.” And indeed, there are many people just as intelligent as he is who are just as certain that the Qur’an is true and whose arguments for its veracity are just as clever. The honest pursuit of truth is NOT about searching for evidence to prove your hypothesis correct. It is about going where the evidence takes you — whether that’s where you wanted to go or not. Good scientists search just as hard for evidence that will disprove their theories as for evidence that will support them.
  6. Avoid tribalism of all forms — especially political, racial/ethnic, and religious tribalism. Just like motivated reasoning, tribalism is tremendously harmful. It exists naturally within you, and you have to work hard to avoid falling victim to it. What is it? It’s a tendency to fall in line with people in your group — something we all do without being aware of it. Think about this: If you know what people believe about one particular issue, such as abortion, then you can usually guess what they believe about most other issues — even totally unrelated ones. Take guns and abortion, for example. You might think that someone who wants to protect the lives of unborn babies would also want to limit the availability of guns. But as it turns out, most people who are against abortion are also in favor of widespread gun ownership. And the reason is purely political. Most people are born into a political tribe, or they join one when they grow up. They think they’ve arrived at their beliefs through logical reasoning, but the actual truth is that they’re going along with their tribe, and they’re just employing motivated reasoning (without knowing it) to convince themselves that they arrived at their positions via rational thought.
  7. Become adept at defusing tense situations and disarming agitated people. It is in our nature to escalate tensions and repay offenses with greater offenses. Be strong and creative enough to step out of such destructive cycles. Interactions with people are like games of chess. You can be a slave to your nature and make expected moves that bring about expected conflicts — or you can master yourself and make unexpected moves that take everyone by surprise and change the direction and outcome of the game. In fact, most people are trapped in petty games without even realizing it. They are trying to score points for themselves and for their tribe. They spout insults and broadcast false virtues (which will win them esteem in the eyes of their tribe) without any regard for what is actually true. They cannot see their way to exit the game and play by a different, higher set of rules, putting an end to the point-scoring and the tribalism. Once they are locked in conflict, they cannot even see the possibility of ending it and working together. They cannot see the possibility of admitting they are wrong or apologizing. Get in the habit of watching for ways to transcend the games that others play. This is how you turn enemies to friends. This is how you get people to come together and accomplish more than anyone ever would have believed possible.

A Colored Version of the Flammarion Engraving

Flammarion Engraving Colored by Olen Rambow

UPDATE: You can now get a poster of this at
https://shop.spreadshirt.com/the-transcendent-mind/

I couldn’t remember what it was called or where I’d seen it; but over the last couple of years, the image had been coming to mind again and again, and I realized that I’d begun to think of it as one of the most profound pieces in the history of art — one that perfectly captures what it means to be a scholar, an inquirer, or anyone who feels compelled to break through boundaries. It wasn’t until this fall (of 2017), as I was teaching a lesson on imaginary numbers, that I finally resolved to track it down and get a poster of it for my classroom.

Some trial and error on Google eventually led me to it. It’s called the Flammarion Engraving, after the French astronomer Camille Flammarion, in whose 1888 book it first appeared (L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire). Interestingly, no one is sure where the image originally came from — whether Flammarion commissioned it for his book, engraved it himself, or found it in some now-lost repository. This mystery only added to my delight.

When I searched for a poster of a colored version, I found one available for $430 — which was obviously out of the question. And so I decided to create my own. The original black-and-white image is in the public domain (available through Wikimedia), so I downloaded a high-resolution copy, had it printed on a 2-foot-by-3-foot piece of paper, and began to think about how I would color it in. Water color? Colored pencil? Bolivian yak’s blood mixed with cuttlefish pigment?

Here was what I would be working with:

I ended up going with colored pencil, since yak’s blood has an unpleasant odor — and since the art teacher at my school was willing to let me borrow a set of Prismacolors. I began by picking out the colors I’d use for the sky. I wanted a sunset that faded from yellow to orange to red to lavender to deep purple. After an afternoon of coloring, I ended up with this:

On the second day, I colored in the sun, the moon, the tree in the foreground, and the robed figure:

Then I spent a day coloring in the mysterious heavenly realm beyond the celestial sphere. I picked what I thought of as vibrant, other-worldly colors:

Then it was time for the distant part of the landscape:

And the foreground:

And then the water: (I also went over the sky and the robe a second time here.)

And finally, I filled in the border and then went back to make some of the other colors a little more vibrant (especially in the heavenly realm):

The last step was to take a high-resolution photo of it and touch it up digitally. (There’s one coloring error that I fixed. Can you find it?) I also decided to make the region outside of the border black instead of white, in order to detract less from the brightness in the interior of the piece. And I thought the text would look good in gold. Speaking of which, the text (which was Flammarion’s original caption for the piece) says, “A missionary of the Middle Ages tells that he had found the point where the sky and the Earth touch…”

Altogether, the project took me about three weeks. The image at the top of this post is the final version. (Click on it for a semi-high resolution version.) I’m really proud of how it turned out! Feel free to share it — but please give me credit for the coloring.

The Answer to the Ultimate Question

Perhaps I’m just being supremely arrogant (I wouldn’t deny this at all), but I believe that I actually know the answer to the Primordial Existential Question1: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The canonical response is to reject the premise of the question—namely, the assumption that a state of pure nothingness is somehow more natural than any other state. Philosophers now tend to agree that there is no good reason to hold this assumption, and the question therefore does not require an answer at all beyond the cheeky one given by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Well, why not?”2

While I don’t disagree with the above reasoning, I have a different response that I think is more meaningful. Specifically, I believe that the question contains yet another false premise: that “something” and “nothing” are mutually exclusive states. The question assumes that since we observe the existence of something (our selves, at the very least), it therefore cannot also be true that there is nothing. Although this assumption makes intuitive sense, I now believe it is wrong.

My initial epiphany was born out of my frustration with trying to make my voice heard over the din of the clamoring masses. While surveying the cacophony on the media, on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and now in the realm of podcasting, I realized that we are fast approaching a state in which everything is being said. And once the multitude of voices drown each other out in utter static, we reach a state that is equivalent to one in which nothing at all is being said. Thus, “nothing” and “everything” are, in a sense, equivalent. This idea is, I admit, little more than a faint analogy, a mere inkling—but it is one that I believe is worth pursuing further.

Imagine a blank projector screen. (It doesn’t matter whether your concept of blankness is pure white, pure black, or even pure gray.) Now let an image—any image—be projected onto the screen. Then let a second image be superimposed on top of it, and then a third, and a fourth, and so on. Consider the limit in which all possible images are projected onto the screen (with the intensities being averaged as each new one is added, if you like). Such an operation can actually be carried out with calculus, using discrete sums for digital images or continuous sums for analog ones. Either way, the result will be the same: convergence to an utterly blank screen.

The key point in the above exercise is that the very act of projecting everything onto the screen gives rise to nothing. Crucially, this phenomenon is not limited just to the superposition of images on a screen; it can be generalized to any information-bearing medium to show that the sum of everything, in terms of information content, is nothing. Perhaps also relevant here is the result from information theory stating that the signals that contain the most information are those which, paradoxically, are composed of completely random static—i.e., nothing.

Consider also the famous quote attributed to Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I like to modify this idea as follows: A block of stone contains within it every possible form—a dolphin, say, or an airplane, or a tree—until the sculptor chooses one and carves away the excess stone from around it. In other words, when you have a big block of marble, which is, in a sense, nothing (since it has not yet been sculpted into any form at all), you have at the very same time everything. And if you were to attempt to carve all possible forms out of the block, every last bit of marble would be scraped away and you would end up with nothing. In other words, creating everything will leave you with nothing.

Perhaps all of these analogies add up to nothing more than a rhetorical trick, and perhaps I am deceiving myself; but right now I think there really is something to it. I suspect that nothing and everything really are opposite sides of the same coin. In a very real sense, everything resides within nothing—while at the same time, nothing resides within everything. Moreover, I suggest that it is not even possible to have one without the other.

And so I think the best answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is this: There is something precisely because there is nothing—for each one is contained within the other. Everything is necessarily born out of nothing, and nothing is necessarily born out of everything. Thus, the reality we inhabit is a bubble of something within the great cosmic soup of nothing and everything. With this in mind, I once again present the following little “poem” I posted previously, which captures my understanding of existence and the meaning we find within it:

Everything from nothing,
And nothing again from everything.
Meaning is in the middle.

And here are some other related tidbits I’ve run across:

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” —John Cage

  1. So named, I believe, by Adolf Grünbaum.
  2. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

A Bed Time Script for All of Us

I’m trying to teach my son to be as forgetful as I am. Most nights, when I put him to bed, I go through something like the following script with him. Note the bit about “letting go” at the end of the second paragraph. (Also note that my son is only three years old, so the language is intentionally simple and repetitive.)

It’s time to go to bed, and it’s time to go to sleep. And we love going to bed, and we love going to sleep because we get to rest, relax, and look forward to tomorrow. And we love looking forward to tomorrow because tomorrow will have new opportunities to learn and grow.

But before we go to sleep, we think about everything that happened during the day. We remember all of the good things that happened, and we hold onto those memories so that we will always have them with us to make us happy. We also think about the bad things and the mistakes that we made so that we can learn from them. And after we learn from them, we let go of them so that they will never bother us again.

[Here I ask my son to tell me his favorite parts of the day—friends he played with, fun things he learned, etc. Then I say, “Hold onto that memory. Whenever you feel sad, think about that, and then you’ll be happy again.” Then I ask him to tell me about something bad that happened or a mistake that he made. “We won’t do that again,” I might say. “And now let’s let go of it so that it will never bother you again.”]

I believe this is a good exercise that we should all practice, no matter how old we are. The busier we get, the harder it is to find time to reflect on our experiences. And if we don’t reflect, we’re probably not storing up all the good memories that we’d like to have in the future. We’re also probably not learning from our mistakes. I hope that one day my son will see this habit as a gift I gave him—something he will always hold onto that will make him happy long after I am gone.

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

Memory Loss: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

For two months now, I’ve been trying to remove a shotgun-blast-shaped cranberry juice stain from the wall beside my bed. When I say this, it sounds like I’ve tested various stain-removal remedies—soapy water, bleach, an abrasive sponge, etc.—and that none of them have worked. But in fact, the problem has nothing to do with how difficult the stain is to remove; it’s just that I can’t remember to wipe the damn thing off.

Every night goes something like this: As I get ready for bed, I set the contents of my pockets on my nightstand, and my eyes fall on the stain. I think, Oh, that’s right. I’ll clean that up as soon as I finish changing clothes. But then, by the time I’ve changed—which takes all of thirty seconds—I have completely forgotten about the stain. Or, on one of my sharper nights, I will actually walk into the kitchen intending to get a wet cloth to clean the stain, but then, upon arriving at the sink, promptly forget why I went there.

That this has only been going on for two months is also a bit odd, because it was six months ago that I actually spilled the juice. The difference of four months is how long it took me to notice that there even was a stain on the wall—and when I noticed it, I had to think for a long while before I realized where it had come from. Thus, my powers of observation would seem to be just as bad as my memory. (In my defense, though, at the time of the spill, I was frantically engaged in getting the juice out of the carpet and soaking up the puddle from the nightstand, so it’s understandable that I missed the splatter on the wall.)

Every time I repeat this nightly ritual of forgetfulness, I mentally kick myself, and a worry bubbles up inside of me: Am I losing my mind? Are these the signs of early-onset dementia? But I dismiss the question every time for the same reason, which is that I distinctly recall having this problem all the way back into my childhood. And when I remember that, I’m forced to acknowledge another ugly (but not as frightening) truth: I just have an abysmal memory.

Sometimes I wonder what things I’ve forgotten without ever realizing I forgot them: How many times have I ordered takeout from a restaurant and then gone to the store, bought groceries, and cooked dinner? (Would the restaurant bother to call me and ask why I never came to pick up the food?) And how many times have I set a drink from McDonald’s on top of my car to free up my hands so I could put my son in his child seat, only to drive off and lose the drink somewhere along the way? (There was at least one occasion on which I arrived home and discovered the cup still resting on top of my car.)

Few things are more terrifying to me than losing my memory. Memory is a big part of what gives us our identity, after all. Sure, you could keep living after losing your memory—but without memories, the person you once were would be every bit as gone as if you had died. On the other hand, memory loss can be a blessing. How many jokes have given me a fresh laugh a second, third, or fourth time because I’d forgotten the punchline? And how many of my relationships have been saved by the forgetting of grievances?

I suppose that forgetfulness is not all bad. Even in the case of this cranberry juice stain, it has given me a reason to laugh at myself. But I would like to move on. And so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can walk over to the kitchen right now, wet a cloth under the faucet, head to my bedroom, and wipe that infernal splatter off the wall once and for all.

[PS: I did it!]

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

The Death of Bruce

Bruce ought to like ants, I thought.

I was seven years old, and I was playing God — though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. My aim was to create a glorious paradise for the lone inhabitant of my domain: Bruce.

I had found Bruce in my parents’ garage, and I managed to catch him without pulling his tail off — a feat of which I was quite proud. I should mention here that Bruce was an anole, that common backyard-dwelling lizard that can change from green to brown.

Bruce’s Garden of Eden would be the 2.5-gallon aquarium that had previously housed a school of guppies, all of which had recently died as a result of my attempt to convert them from freshwater to saltwater. In that aquarium, I lovingly sculpted for Bruce a dirt landscape that sloped down to a “pond” at one end of the tank. I added sticks. Leaves. Grass. All that was missing was food.

I was pretty sure that lizards ate insects, so I went looking for some. And right there in our front yard, I hit the jackpot: Against the curb was a beautiful anthill — plenty of food for my little Bruce!

I carried Bruce’s aquarium outside, scooped up a generous chunk of the anthill with a trowel, and dumped it about six inches away from Bruce, who didn’t seem to notice. After watching until I grew bored — probably about ten seconds — I left, intending to come back every once in a while to see whether Bruce had yet found the food I’d so lovingly provided for him.

As it turned out, Bruce didn’t find the ants, exactly; they found him. At least, that’s how I imagine it went. All I know is that when I came back to check on him, he was lying upside down, his body swollen and motionless, covered with a swarm of fire ants.

And so for the second time in as many weeks, I emptied out that little 2.5-gallon aquarium and honored its erstwhile occupant, whose death I had caused, with a shallow backyard grave marked by a cross fashioned from popsicle sticks. (This, I believed, would ensure Bruce’s entry to heaven.)

It was a shame that Bruce had to die, but at least I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t try to feed a lizard five hundred fire ants all in one go. Of course, I never put this lesson into practice, and that does still make me feel a bit guilty. But what can you do?

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go out and catch another lizard.

Daddy, Are You Dying?

“I can’t see the stars,” I said.

I was talking about the glow-in-the-dark dots on my son’s new space-themed pajamas. He was excited about them, as only a two-year-old could be, and he wanted to show them off to me. But they were invisible to my eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. I would probably be able to see them in a few seconds, once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness; but it also occurred to me that my sight just wasn’t as good as it used to be. Eliot’s was better.

“My eyes aren’t as good as yours,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

Once more, I paused.

“Because my eyes are old,” I said at last.

Why are your eyes old?” he asked.

“Because I’m old!” I said.

This time, Eliot was the one who paused. During the silence, I began to make out the stars on his shirt, but I couldn’t see the expression on his face as he looked at me, processing what I’d just told him. When he finally answered, his voice was much quieter and more serious than it had been just moments before.

“You’re dying,” he said.

I stared into the darkness. He was only two. He had seen plants and flowers die, but as far as I knew, he’d had no cause to think about people dying. Had someone told him about the connection between old age and dying, or had he just known? I suddenly had a spooky feeling that perhaps Eliot’s mind was connected to some well of universal truth—a source we all begin life connected to but then lose touch with as we grow out of childhood.

“Daddy, are you dying?” he asked.

“No, buddy,” I said. Not yet.

After we said good night and I closed his bedroom door, I couldn’t get his little voice out of my head. Daddy, are you dying? Just how much did he know?

It wasn’t until the next morning, as I was walking him to the playground, that I would get another hint as to what was going on in his mind.

“Daddy,” he said, “I don’t like you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re old.”

I laughed, even though it actually hurt a little.

“Well,” I said, “when you get old, I will still like you.”

He looked up at me, eyes narrowed.

“No,” he said. “I will still like you.”

A moment later, he was running toward the slide.

Merel and Tony Live at Discovery Green

merel_and_tony

Merel (standing, far left) and Tony (sitting, far right)

On Saturday, Cathy and I took Eliot to Discovery Green in downtown, Houston, where we saw the musical duo Merel and Tony perform live (with their band “The Woe Woe Woes”). They have a fresh, unique sound, and I highly recommend checking them out:

Merel and Tony’s Facebook Page

A Song by Merel and Tony

I met Tony about a year ago through a mutual friend who kept telling me random facts about him. “Did you know that Tony writes music for This American Life?” he asked me. And on another occasion, “Tony writes books, binds them himself, and sells them at private readings.” It didn’t take long for me to start calling Tony “the most interesting man in the world.” And so it was a treat to finally get to hear him in concert.

The weather was beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed relaxing in the park over a cup of lemonade, listening to the music, and watching as the sun set behind the band. After a few songs, Eliot said to us as he looked longingly at the stage, “I want to sing.”

“What do you want to sing?” we asked.

“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he replied.

While the musicians were taking a break, he approached the stage to ask them if they would let him sing, but he turned shy at the last second and posed for a photograph instead:

eliot-with-m-and-t

Join me on Twitter: @OlenRambow

A Rule to Live By

Eliot in life jacket

Cathy and I just returned from a short camping trip on which we inadvertently discovered a new rule to live by. It could be that my judgment is a bit clouded at the moment, as my emotions are still running high from the ordeal, but right now I would say that this rule trumps all others, regardless of context:

NEVER BRING A TWO-YEAR-OLD CAMPING.

Every checklist in the world needs to be rewritten with this rule in mind. If you’re going on a trip, first make sure that it won’t involve camping with a toddler. If you’re planning a wedding, proceed only if you’re certain there won’t be any camping with two-year-olds. If you’re a heart surgeon, then before you crack open another patient’s chest, you really need to double-check — just to be safe — that you won’t end up getting roped into a camping trip with a toddler as a result of the operation you’re about to perform.

I’ll leave the details of the debacle to the reader’s imagination and focus on some positives here: (1) In the end, we did still decide to keep the two-year-old in question. (2) The child, who shall remain anonymous, seemed to have enough of a blast at certain moments on the trip that the hellish periods may indeed have been worth enduring. For him, at least. (3) We got to see a beautiful starry sky from the dark woods of Goose Island State Park.