Being an atheist insomniac

Next week on Facebook, the "A" Week begins, asking atheists and freethinkers to display the scarlet "A" on their profiles. There are a lot of people who don't believe in the supernatural out there, and still many who feel somewhat alone in their community.

There are a lot of positives on abandoning superstition and religion in life - how you regard each day as a treasure can be one - but there are also downsides. I want to discus
s one aspect of being an atheist that has caused me sleepless nights and how that turned around. With the help of Star Wars.

Recognizing that there is no evidence for an afterlife (and that mainstream religions' claims are flimsy appeals to a sense of comfort) is not comforting.
Recognizing, as Richard Dawkins eloquently wrote,
"After 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. To put it the other way round, isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be a part of it?"
This is wonderful, and most days I do feel it. However, many nights I can't escape an existential angst so primal I cannot sleep. I feel silly; I feel like I'm failing; yet I cannot shake the feeling I am one day going to die, and sometimes later no one will ever remember me - there may be no one to remember me. I know I have an ego that drives me to be remembered.

I'm an artist, I seek to create things which will be exalted or at least pique interest beyond my numbered days. The street-artist Banksy once said, "
The holy grail is to spend less time making the picture than it takes people to look at it." I don't delude myself into thinking people when spend 20+ hours pouring over trilobites with fanciful wings, but I hope more hours will aggregate looking over those paintings over many years than it took to create them.

Simply: many nights I cannot sleep. I feel anxiety over dying. Over things not finished. Over beauty in the world I've heard of and never seen. Of leaving my wife and family behind. I lay awake, freaked out that one day I won't be here. Sometimes I have to get out of bed and pace a little, or play video games to distract myself.

Having moderate persistent asthma doesn't help. Wheezing, tight-chested, thinking about mortality. It's where this painting comes from
.

Asthma Incubus:

Once, I was informed by a (well-meaning, I'm sure) atheist Buddhist transhumanist that my fear of dying was not a very mature response that I would have to come to terms with. It surprised me people could come to terms with it: how to do it so you aren't just ignoring it?

A couple of years ago, when the sleep-loss was becoming a particularly acute pro
blem, I read my way through book after book, hoping for some sort of atheism-based mental anaesthetic to help me sleep. Didn't find it.

Until I re-read one of my favourite Star Wars series. Star Wars came out when I was 3 years old. My lifelong artistic fascination with creating living things that don't exist is hugely influenced by Star Wars and the artists like Ralph McQuarrie (and so many more!) who breathed life into ideas.

I was re-reading the X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston (cover art by the awesome Paul Youll.) The series doesn't focus too much on Jedi and the Force, instead it focuses on the pilots that won the war, and are continuing to fight while dealing with attrition in their unit.

I got to Aaron Allston's first book in the series, Wraith Squadron, one sleepless night. I came to a part where the unit's commander, Wedge Antilles was in the uncomfortable position of writing a letter to a deceased pilot's family about her death.

I read this (p 242):
"I no longer believe that the momentum of a life headed in a worthwhile direction ends when that life does...(the pilot) shot down five enemies, all of whom served evil men. Had she not done so, their actions would have led to further evil, but her actions take their place instead, broadening like a firebreak into the future theirs would have occupied...I will never know how much good surrounding me is a legacy of Jesmin's life. Her future will be invisible to me. But invisible is not the same as nonexistent. I will know that her deeds and accomplishments still move among us, phantoms..."

I feel asleep, pondering this immortality.

I still turn to this passage on occasion when the silly, primitive part of my mind looks at the dark of night and sleep and feels fear. I know some of the comfort comes from it being part of a childhood fable I remember fondly.

But that idea, that whatever actions I take may ripple outward into the future, hopefully for the better gives me comfort enough to sleep. As Dawkins pointed out, I have existed, and I'm lucky to rise from the bed, to do good work and enjoy the universe. Allston's writing points out to me that my existence can never be removed the history of the universe.

*zzzz-zzzzz*


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

Flying Trilobite Gallery
*** Flying Trilobite Reproduction Shop ***

Star Wars: X-Wing: Wraith Squadron, by Aaron Allston is published by
Bantam Books and may be purchased here.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is published by Bantam books
and may be purchased here.

Help me with my homework

This term, I'm taking a new studio course that looks gruelling in the best possible way. To start it off, we were paired with another student alphabetically, and we each separately need to come up with a favourite quote which will fire the trajectory of the term.

So, why not a poll, I thought immediately. But I gotta hurry. Poll closes Tuesday morning at 5:30 am.

Help! Please vote on the poll in the sidebar, and be a part of my art. You can pick multiple answers.

(This is the last class of my Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours degree. Can't wait. All those times I'll be at the opera, and the stage manager comes rushing out, "is there an artist in the house?!" and I'll coolly take out a ballpoint pen and perform emergency blow-painting with ink all over their backdrop.)

Here are the quotes I am nominating:

1) "-no frogs called, no insects sang, the tree branches stood silent, and no breath disturbed the motionless air."
-the last line of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

2) "The word transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise."
-from Genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters by Matt Ridley

3) "I no longer believe that the momentum of a life headed in a worthwhile direction ends when that life does."
-from Star Wars: X-Wing - Wraith Squadron by Aaron Allston

4) "Science is spectrum analysis. Art is photosynthesis."
-from Half-Truths and One-And-A-Half-Truths by Karl Krauss

5) "This may be because they are forest animals, and the leaf litter of forest floors is not friendly to fossils."
-from The Ancestor's Tale: a pilgrimage to the dawn of life by Richard Dawkins

6) "The strawberry was too old to remember anyone. By this time the hedgerows were filled with bones."
-from the poem, A Child's Garden of Strawberries, from Selected Strawberries and other poems by Susan Musgrave

Vote! Oh, and keep in mind we have been encouraged to draw and paint with unusual materials.


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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow
under Creative Commons Licence.

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Art Monday: Palettes


After realizing a visitor or two from the rodent family had moved into my studio space this weekend, I spent my painting time last night instead gutting my studio. Removing all the furniture, cleaning up, tossing things and pouring delightful amounts of cleanser on the hardwood floor.

My studio is actually a really large closet off the living room. Our nephew stays over once a week, and when he was small we gave up the studio-office so he could have a bedroom away from my potentially harmful paint supplies and so we could load it with Star Wars toys. My wife and I live in a wickedly ancient apartment building with many quirks in the architecture; pests are not common, thankfully.

Likely I will have more artwork up later in the week. For now, enjoy these palettes. I usually use container lids, as you can see, and these ones are waiting to be disposed of properly. Can you spot the two for Migrations? The one with a touch of blue for Introducing Sara Chasm?

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow under Creative Commons Licence.

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Things I don't blog about

...and maybe I should. One of the sessions I learned the most from at ScienceOnline'09 was the Nature Blogging, moderated by Kevin Zelnio and GrrlScientist. When the discussion became an open question of what type of blogs do you most enjoy, in many ways it became about blogging in general, and not just nature and/or/vs. science blogs.

So, to veer away from the question of nature blogging, here are a few things I don't blog about, and maybe should once in a while.


-My family life. Last October for our fifth wedding anniversary, my wife suggested we drive up to the Scenic Cav
es near Collingwood Ontario. It was a beautiful autumn day, and it the hike and views were terrific. I admit to an unexpected bought of claustrophobia going through one narrow passage: I backed out! Michelle made it through. Next time, perhaps.

Michelle is a big supporter of my artwork and burgeoning illustration career.
I'm a lucky man to be married to someone who so thoroughly 'gets' me.

Our nephew has also had a large impact on my life. I seem to be one of the major 'male' influences in his life, and I take that responsibility seriously. I don't believe it's completely fair to post pictures of him all over the place when he's too young to consider the impact, so usually the pictures are when his back is turned. I've identified him before as Obi-Wan, and later, Dr. Jones. Perhaps at the moment he's Bruce Wayne.

Some time maybe, I'll be able to ask Michelle to guest-b
log here on The Flying Trilobite. Would that be fun?

-My walk to work. There's a spot in Trinity-Bellwoods park where you get this clear view of the CN Tower between two trees. I've often thought how great it would be to do a photo essay of the the view of the trees and world's tallest free-standing structure (until two years ago, anyway) as they change with the seasons.

-Star Wars.
Why? Well, this is in part because of the Science Fiction in Science Blogs session hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Why not?

I was three years old when A New Hope came out.
When I was 9, my mother gave me all three "Art of" books for the trilogy. I think they, along with the book Castles by Alan Lee are major inspirations for why I am an artist. I really don't care what trash-talkin' people have to say about the dialogue, directing, plot holes - for me Star Wars stands as a pinnacle of human imagination. I like Jar-Jar. Every scene, every costume, every alien is the result of artists with unbridled creativity challenging their minds and their technical skill. For pure visual aesthetic alone, Star Wars is tops.

With the Clone Wars series and the movies on dvd, my nephew is a huge fan. So I have an excuse to keep playing with 3 3/4" figures. Below is a picture of Han Solo's birthday party in the cantina, with my nephew in attendance. (I Photoshopped his face over Obi-W
an's body.)

-Gothy archetypes. I've had this idea to sketch some of the gothy "looks" that have remained part of the club scene here in Toronto for the past ten years. Not specific people, just certain styles that seem to be perennially present in the dark spectrum of Toronto. I keep toying with doing this.

The young goth-try-too-hard. The Victorian top-hat-and-velvet. The vaguely H.R.Giger-esque jeans-and-t-shirt guy. The Betty Page. The goth b-boy.

The closest I've come to so far is mentioning some of the fast music I listen to while painting.

-Being a Bright, and an atheist. You may not be able to tell from my actual posts (though there's plenty of evidence in my sidebar), but I'm an avid read
er of many of the "New Atheist" books and blogs. The National Post paper here in Canada seems to address the culture war (though not by name) more than any other, and I follow the damage done in the name of religion on a daily basis. I try to balance this with plenty of reading from the other points of view, but I have yet to be persuaded that religion does more good than it does harm.

This ties into every aspect of my life. I try to bring a skeptical, curious worldview into everything I do. I'm still searching for a way to bring it into my painting more directly. So far it either becomes satire or horribly depressing, and with the world of science inspiring me, not as appealing. We''ll see if a couple of things in my sketch book make it out this year.

-Art tips and techniques. This I think I'll start doing, and soon. The second session I helped to moderate at ScienceOnline'09, along with artist-biologist Tatjana Jovanovic-Grove was about how to put up decent images online. There are already plenty of great sites about art online (Gurney Journey, Leslie's Blog and Lines and Colors spring to mind[edit: who can forget the tips at Heather Ward's?]), but perhaps I'll be able to contribute something here as well. Mainly, I like blogs that have a focus, but break the wall now and again to show some other aspect of the author's life. Maybe this post is enough for a whole year of breaking the wall. Maybe not.

Art in awe of science remains.

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Original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow under Creative Commons Licence.

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A perfect fanboy moment

Little known 'round these parts is that my 7 year old nephew and I are huge Star Wars fans. I've been collecting the 3.75" figures since I was three, and we rip open the packages and play with them all the time. Lately the Clones have been trying to thwart Indiana Jones from rescuing an Ewok cub, but that's another story. Admiral Ackbar is one of my favourites for his infamous, "It's a trap!" line.

You know when something that feels made for you comes along? I went into Silver Snail recently and found this:

...trilobite shield and shoulder pads included.

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All original artwork on The Flying Trilobite Copyright to Glendon Mellow. The contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Licence. See sidebar for details. Please visit my
blog, gallery and reproduction store. Admiral Ackbar Rulez.