11/15/2012 06:56 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

Chemical Stunts

Dear Waldo,

My moron brother Lance is always talking about outer space. He's obsessed with the idea that there's millions and millions of other planets with life on them. When I say he's a moron I mean he's an actual moron. Not an idiot or an imbecile, which is lower down the scale if my memory serves me correctly, but a true moron. He's 25 but you'd think he's at most nine. How do I tell my moron brother his idea about life being all over the place is the stupidest thing I ever heard without making him feel like the moron he is?


Dear Bruno,

To answer your question, let's take a look at this thing called Life that your brother is talking about. A lot of people will tell you a lot of things on this topic but as far as I'm concerned here's all you really have to know: Life is a fabulous against-the-odds Chemical Stunt.

There you have it. Life is a Chemical Stunt that happens again and again here and there throughout time. Some Stuff mixes with some other Stuff and if the temperature is just right, Life starts up. There's much more to it, of course, but spending too much of the day pulled over on the side of the road looking under the hood can certainly take some of the joy out of the joyride. We make a big thing of the Chemical Stunt that became us, but in truth it's no more or less amazing then the other jaw-dropping Chemical Stunts that became other living things we share the planet with. Take a nice afternoon stroll through a zoo if you want to get an idea of all the crazy things Life has made living things do in order to survive. What a wild variety of solutions to the same problem. Have you ever seen such a goofy bunch in your entire life? A camel! A platypus! An ostrich! A turtle! A flounder! Us!

Of course, there's a much earlier model of Living Things: Plants. The basic difference between Animals and Plants is that Animals are cordless, while Plants have to be plugged in. This earlier model still had to perform the same survival tasks as the later models of Life -- eat, grow, defend, reproduce -- but get this: The poor saps couldn't go anywhere. Us, we had it easy: Look Ma, no plug. We got to scamper around, hide from things that wanted to eat us, chase things that we wanted to eat. But Plants were stuck where they were stuck. And yet they figured things out. They solved the problem of Life.

Bruno, you may be thinking, and rightly so, What's this have to do with what I'm going to tell my moron brother? I promise you I'm getting to it. Years ago I took my chainsaw and cut down a great big hemlock tree. If I had cut it down for firewood or for lumber, that would have been one thing. But the truth is that I cut it down because it was blocking the view from my house to the mountains. I bet it was over sixty feet tall, probably a hundred years old, and I cut it down in less than two minutes. The force of this giant hitting the ground is what I remember feeling. The earth shook. The view improved.

But then something else. I had taken a life. I was over half a century old but this guy had been standing out there in the rain and wind and sun and snow a lot longer than that. Never one peep of complaint. Never one request. Never one demand. And the trees around me, if they were pissed off they were too dignified to show it, too focused on the work of living to waste energy on resentment or pity.

From a distance, when I think about this moment with my big fat head, it just sits there like a thin, interesting thought. But when I feel it, feel the tree hit the ground, feel the life in this great big thing, feel the weight of what I had done, the outdoors changes. Everything changes. It stops being me and them. It becomes Us.

Us. Everything that has performed the Chemical Stunt of living. Every plant. You. Me. Lance.

And so, Bruno, given that the universe in infinite, I would say the opportunities for this particular Chemical Stunt to occur are infinite too. I recommend you go to Lance and say this: Good thinking, bro.

Your Fan,
Waldo Mellon