Archive for the ‘Love Is Strong As Death’ Category


May 7, 2011

Writing about the universe filling its void with energy and my doing the same, am I indulging in a cute anthropomorphic attempt at poetry?  And does it matter to your life today, these philosophies of whether the universe has a soul.

Whether philosophy matters is a subject of talk shows.  Most of us fear our kids will become philo majors and end up using their ivy league diplomas to sell shoes and work in fast food.  Philosophers will tell you it was philosophy that first realized the existence of atoms – an idea absconded with by chemistry, along with the idea of a gas, and by the way the idea of flotation in fluids.  A lot of physics is really philosophy, when you get to extrapolating back to the beginning of the universe and the question of parallel universes and a cyclic re-collapse and big bang.  Even arguing about whether human space is worth doing given its huge cost, its risks and its absence of science return, versus robotic exploration, is at its essence philosophical.  Is exploration exploration if the explorers are humans remotely controlling rovers on Mars.  Have “we” landed on mars already?

To kill an animal, but feel it is wrong to kill a human, you have to have a special philosophy that animals can be killed if humans (or other animals) want to, but humans can not be killed by humans nor by animals.   And why that would be considered correct and acceptable behavior – sanctioned killing of anything non-human, is philosophical.  It is a belief that animals, like the universe, like the earth, lack a soul.

We as a culture have decided, have codified in the Bible, that only humans have souls, experience love, loss, joy, sorrow, create art in all its forms, invent things, strive to improve ourselves.  After millions of years of evolution flies are still getting trapped in spider webs, but we people feel to have improved our lot.  Scientists can tell you that these emotions emanate from a thinking mechanism that is highly complex that you are not going to find in a glass of water.  But if you don’t think a glass of water is complex, how about the whole universe, which includes us – isn’t it by definition much more complex than us?  If complexity is the measure, a deer or a bear is just not complex enough?  They do some pretty amazing things those animals, like living without clothing or shelter through a rhode island winter on the food they can find, including reproducing themselves, winter, spring, summer and fall, brutal as the weather may be.  Just how do they do that, these not quite complex enough animals?  Instinct is our one word dismissal.

Ergo we are special and being special give ourselves the right to exploit everything else, and strip it of the soul.  Historically people have done this to other people – to Jews, to Blacks, to Serbs, to women, to the old, to the disabled.  But we now consider that wrong.  The line is officially drawn at our species.  Each member of which has the right to live, at least formally though we not do much to ensure that possibility is realized, whereas the earth and its other inhabitants are only justifiably preserved if we need them for our survival or pleasure.   Is it impossible our current state of enlightenment will never change?  It changed so much in the last 50 years.  A billion years from now that line will still be drawn around humans – but what will that mean in a billion years – we will have evolved, and so will the bears and the deer and the birds.  Who will be inside the line, who outside?

At least as a thought experiment (thank you Einsten for that degree of freedom) it’s worth imagining the crazy idea that in fact everything has a soul, or is a member of a system that has a soul.  OK, you might argue a pebble on the beach does not have a soul, and I’m with you on that one, but if you look at it as a component of the beach, which is a component of the sea-land interface, which is a critical element of the ocean, which accounts for a huge part of the earth’s surface area and biomass and without which the rest of us would not be here, what about that system?

What about the moods of the sea, the patterns of the clouds reflected in a salt pond at dawn in pink and grey and orange, what about the singing of birds on a background of waves reaching the pebbles and sand, what about the clarity of the air on a mountaintop above the clouds, the sad look in your dog’s eyes when she realizes you are leaving for work and faces a day alone in the house, even if you let her sleep on your nice new sofa?

Nature doesn’t create art, you can say staring up at the milky way, at the tiny crescent of the moon following the sun to the horizon on a juicy summer evening through a red atmosphere dripping with water showing off all three of its phases?  Native Americans believed the earth was their mother, giving them all they needed to survive, space, nourishment, warmth, shelter, and the animals and the trees were all parts of that great soul.  They would not harm one bit of her.  We don’t believe that, nor the similar beliefs of the Shinto, now similarly out of fashion in Japan, nor the aborigine, marginalized in Australia and living on their reservations.

Scientists mostly don’t believe in UFOs, and if they do, they are marginalized like the aborigine.  What about Einstein?  What about the speed of light?  If they are so smart, why are they not talking with us – why are they sneaking around our solar system?   Scientists have a science to explain why UFO believers are wrong and not scientists and humans have a philosophy of the soul to marginalize every other element of the entire universe.  Neat.  But right?

I have a philosophical belief that to paraphrase Arthur Clarke, when techies say something is possible, they are usually right, but when they say something is impossible, usually wrong.  He was told that geosynchronous communications satellites were impossible about 25 years before they were in common use carrying our television and radio broadcasts and our phone conversations all around the globe instantly.  Nobody called him back and said “hey guy, sorry about that”.

Einstein is still going to be The Man 100, 1,000, 10,000 years from now?  No loopholes in the speed of light thing?   I claim the least scientific people are those scientists who believe we now have it figured out.  How depressing.  Nobody is going to upset the Grand Order?  There is no use for young people except they can work in little microniches and figure out the energy balance of a cosmic jet or the lifetime of some exotic atom or particle, the thermal conductivity of helium-neon mixtures.  But nobody is ever going to change physics, UFOs are impossible, the world and its limits as we know them will never change.  After a few billion years, we have thought seriously about these things for a couple hundred years and now we can consider the case closed and everything worth knowing is known then.  That’s not comforting to me.  We used to think Newton had mechanics worked out… now we have lasers and semiconductors and curved space time and GPS satellites with clocks corrected for relativistic effects and Einstein, so we are done.

And philosophically we will never change our minds about whether that system which accompanies our world with clouds and waves and rain and plants and birds and the beauty of every day, which evolved everything including us, is not complex enough to have what we have, but instead is merely a sort of chemistry experiment in a large test tube,  unthinking, cold and soul less.   Soul can only be in humans, and much as a deer or a cow may suffer seeing its young child taken from it and killed, that is just the illusion of a soul because only humans are licensed to have them.  Please ignore that man behind the curtain, for I am the Wizard of Oz.

The end of life is the end, time is irreversible – even Einstein did not believe that.  He believed time was a dimension just like the other three, but we so far lacked the ability to traverse it freely at any speed in any direction.  Those lost to us are according to the cold sleek science of 2011 gone forever.  That idea is never going to change either?  The past is gone, the future is the future, all that exists is the present.  But the present is infinitely small.  It leaves very little room for those souls we claim we have.

Descartes advised hedging on the side of belief, since there’s little downside.  If we act  like all these things are soul less and abuse them for our ends, what if it turns out we were wrong.  We can claim we didn’t get the memo?   Our own courts say ignorance of the law is no defense.  Walking softly you risk the rest of humans thinking you an idiot, a pacifist, a child, naïve, burdensome.  The alternative is to act in ways most people will find acceptable.  And what got learned and discovered, what horizons were opened – the idea of the atom,the idea of a spherical earth, the idea of the earth orbiting the sun, the idea of evolution instead of creation, the idea of microorganisms, of extremophyles, geosynchronous satellites, microsatellites, cell phones, personal computers, accepting all the preconceptions and philosophies that ensure you won’t be exiled like the aborigine?

If enough of us become exiles, the exilers will one day find themselves the exiled.  That’s my philosophy.


filling vacuums

May 6, 2011

Leaves turn color in the fall, they told us at Wiley Junior High 8th grade biology, because they were dying and the green chlorophyl was no longer being produced to nourish the tree from sunlight.  I was not paying much attention, the biology of life and death being all about what already is and my interest was in what wasn’t but could be – what I learned to call engineering.  Colors were other materials in the leaf now visible in the absence of green.  Without makeup, the leaves were at the end of their lives to be not what they had led us to believe

Space is empty, they told us, hence black and cold, but with the advantage one can travel through it at incredible speed – no air resistance, nothing to bump into, no gravity.  A very modern philosophy – space was useful, fast, sleek, efficient, but cold and soul less.

Considering that we have plenty of leaves available for close examination, and we swim inside the ocean of space, how to explain how completely wrong we were about them?  And wrong in ways that reflect so neatly our view of the world – the obligation since expulsion from Eden to cover ourselves so long as we live, and that to become modern we shed the baggage of warmth, love and soul so that we can travel light and fast and everywhere instantly.  Photons travel at the speed of light and they never age.  Unless they slow down, exit the vacuum and travel outside it (in air or water) or encounter an absorbing atom, they are immortal.  I want that.

But what I hope is we now have leaves right – green chlorophyl is useless in winter’s weak sunlight, better to build other chemicals to protect the plant during its hibernation, chemicals that are brown, orange, red, not our stereotypical color-of-life green.  Before their death, leaves provide something else, not life, not nourishment, they have a final critical role in the survival of the plant beyond death.  in death they ensure the life of the whole world.

Faced with my own vacuum, I filled it, unable to live up to that ‘60s sleek ideal of aluminum jets and V8s, of cold efficient vacuum.  With energy – writing, racing, commuting between my two countries 6 times a year, teaching, studying Italian, even breaking bones is a sort of welcome distraction.  Like priming a pump with water, pain pushes pain away.  And space?  Apparently also the vacuum doesn’t love a vacuum.  It fills itself with energy, with massless particles rushing around at the speed of light, with pulsating electromagnetic fields.  People talk about harnessing the energy of the vacuum.  Maybe we’ll never make gold from that lead, but lead is not nothing.  There’s a lot less of that vacuum than we thought – all of a sudden 90%, maybe 95% of the entire universe, that thing we are immersed in and which surrounds us all our lives and we see when we stare up and when we look down, that we call space implying that it is empty space, has 20 times more stuff in it than we thought a few years ago – mostly dark matter and invisible energy.

If it works for the cosmos, it works for me.  A vacuum is the absence of everything.  I imagine, still when I stare up at the black winter Rhode Island sky with its diffuse dust of stars punctuating the expanse of apparent nothingness, Nancy existing among that black cold vast emptiness.   The idea scares me and makes my psyche shiver in synch with my freezing body.  I want to be surrounded by the warm wet atmosphere of the earth, with warm sunshine, wind, salt air, sounds of birds and cars and people.  Summertime at the beach.  That she is now a part of this infinitude of absolute zero is impossible to reconcile.

Now we know, and I hope we’re right this time: that imposing infinity of space is vulnerable.  Because a vacuum is the absence of everything, the tiniest amount of energy fills it, the efforts even of one person fills infinity and destroys that vacuum.

The idea is not new – energy and dark matter did the heavy lifting for the cosmos, leaving me to fill my own personal vacuum with my own personal energy.  Three years later, summoning energy, launching myself into the world to fill my vacuum has become a habit.  Is our role to repair the world, Tikkun olam?  That’s what religious school taught me, when the lack-of-religion school taught me that colored leaves lacked chlorophyl and space was empty.  Or is the business of life to fill vacuums with energy?

the life cycle of butterflies

December 20, 2009

a selection from our new book

March 30, 2008

My first and last biology class was in junior high school exactly 40 years ago.  Other than it confirming my distaste for animals and lack of interest in plants, I also remember something about the life cycle of butterflies and moths.  They evolve through four diverse stages with the same individual taking on completely different appearance and behavior with each passage.  Finally, they graduate to the most beautiful, the adult stage, when they show off their wings, flying precariously in summer sunshine over meadows and through deep green forests.  I wished, as an overweight and socially clumsy 13 year old, that I could hope for such a makeover sometime in my future, emerging into a life of physical beauty and freedom (from 8th grade biology among other oppressions).  I suppose that desire, the aesthetic appeal of these animals, and their freedom to fly aimlessly outdoors with no apparent destination or motivation other than to play, imprinted them, just a little, on my psyche.

But there is another reason my 13 year old self was impressed by their story.  It was not so much their designs, colors and flight, as the dissonant tragedy that can go hand-in-hand with their hard-earned maturation, and with it, the freedom to fly.  Some of the species, upon achieving their adult phase, can no longer eat.  Each individual lives for only a few weeks or at most months, burning up fuel stored during earlier lives.

Apparently the inevitability of their end doesn’t inhibit them.  Maybe it even motivates them to fascinate us, to brighten our world, and for the time that they have, to make more of living than without them we would ever know.

As you know, Nancy has not eaten in about 6 days – excepting Diet Coke, a little cran-grape juice and grape flavored shaved ice.  Last night, she and Karen watched some DVDs together.  Nancy and I spend our time, the time when she has the energy and focus, talking, watching clips on her Mac, even laughing.  It is, it has been these last few days, weeks, months, in many ways the life we probably always wanted,  one we didn’t have.  A life being together, without focus on work, a construction of a future, the mortgage and the money we should be saving for the time we might no longer be able to work.  A life orbiting just around ourselves.

Life is the constant work of expanding the past

December 20, 2009

Cancer Contest

April 26, 2009

From my mother I inherited a light skin prone to keratosis – pre cancerous cells that if not treated can become more serious.  I have it, or someimtes it’s more advanced stages, treated wherever it turns up at least once a year.

 When I would come home with a small part of me dug out somewhere, or a red face from a shower of liquid nitrogen, I would say to Nancy “You know, you’re not the only one around here who can have cancer”.  She’d say “pffft – your cancer is wimpy – it’s nothing.  It’s not even really cancer”  I’d rebuff “You’re just a cancer snob.  Nobody’s cancer measures up to your cancer.  Lance Armstrong – what does he know about cancer, out there riding his damned bicycle”.  And she’d say “Now you’re getting it”.  
I am going through a month or so of topical chemotherapy with a common treatment called Carac, which, whatever the pages of medical jargon that comes with it says in that 4-point type, kills a lot of the skin on your face to wipe out Keratoses.  There’s a lot of blog chatter about the suffering associated with it – mainly that your face hurts, your body is in general not itself and not in a good way, and you look pretty ugly when the stuff is really working.  

The Buddhist “become the fire” viewpoint is helpful to me.  There are many things worse than a cancer treatment that works.  Specifically, ones that don’t work.  My advice is to enjoy the fact that it’s working, and that you’ve got what it takes to go through the month or so of symptoms with some aplomb.  And a few tips:

 – limit looking in the mirror to a maximum of 2x per day.  Less is better.  Your face is not your problem – you don’t have to look at it all day.  So don’t.

– Enjoy your free education in being an “other”.  Watch how people look at you and treat you differently just because a few square inches of skin is different.  Imagine being in a wheelchair, black in white America, a recovered burn victim, or just very short or very tall, or very heavy or very thin.   

–  Greet people as follows:
 • them:  Hi, how are you doing
 • you:  OK.  It’s not contagious. 

– You can’t make a 500 mile bike ride wishing the whole time you were home watching the game on TV or sitting with friends and the  Sunday times at Peet’s Coffee.  Picture yourself as a domestique on a leading team in the Giro d’Italia.  Ace cyclist out there doing what you do best – covering those miles.  Yes, it hurts sometimes, and it rains some times, and hydration and food don’t always happen when you want.  But overall, you trained all year for this week, unlike all others on your calendar.  This is the week you’ll remember all year round.  And too soon it will not be real, it will just be a story you tell about your past.  Don’t waste it moving your brain to some virtual reality.  Live it in its transient coolness.

You only have one month to be Mr. or Ms. Carac.  Don’t cover with makeup and creams.  Your MD won’t approve, and it’s not going to work anyway.  Be the fire.  This is your month to feel weird, look weird, and do something good for yourself.  You emerge from 500 miles on the bike in great shape – you are what you were meant to be physically, before your brain and civilization took over your primordial physicality.  You’ll emerge from your Carac month (and a couple weeks to get over it) with the best skin you’ve ever had – and the most appreciation for healthy skin you’ve ever had.  Meanwhile, go with it, tell your Carac to go for it With Gusto!  After all, it works for you, not the other way around.  You’re paying for the ride – enjoy it.

Lu’ Lives

September 17, 2008


In three days we went from a Vet diagnosis of “no big deal” to my thinking early on Sunday AM that maybe this actually was a big deal, and a long trip in the rain and dark to get her to the ER (thanks to my dad for a new portable GPS – a big help in finding a small place on a big road in bad visibility), to a new diagnosis that she was a “very sick kitty” (that’s the technical jargon) and unlikely to make it without extreme, and uncertain, measures, possibly resulting in a permanent disability (maybe dialysis – for a cat?), to later in the day when the diagnosis changed again – an operable condition.  From there we decided to go for it, that was Monday. Tuesday I picked her up from surgery, about 24 hours post-op.


So my Zen cat is home and enjoying life again.  She had two big stones in her bladder, but that’s a routine surgery (routine does not equal cheap nor comfortable) and she looks like any human post-op.  She has fur shaved off at the site of surgery (lower abdomen), and about 8 large surgical steel staples.  She also has fur shaved off where they had ECG monitors, and one leg where they had an IV inserted (yes, they do IV drugs for cats).  She gets 2x per day antibiotics for a week prophylacticly, and I have pain meds if she gets uncomfortable, which so far she isn’t.  I also have one of those circus clown cones in case she starts pulling at the staples.  If she does, she’s tougher than I am…


The prognosis is she’ll be 100% fine.  She has a new diet with a mix of dry and canned (or nowadays the trend is to foil wrap) wet food, and a new bubbler thing that makes water a little more interesting – cats like to drink moving water and this thing sort of makes the water burble – a little like an aquarium pump only no air – just pumping the water around – what I would call a zen fountain.


It’s a little ironic how much I learned from caring for Nancy that subconsciously I transferred to Lu’.  I think we all do that with our pets – project our own ways of being or ways we’d like to be.  Death is a big thing.  If you let it win, you have to live with that forever.  Which, as the song says, is a long time.  Win or lose, you do both yourself, and the patient, a mitzvah by engaging in the fight.  This time, the good guys won.


Another lesson I learned is when somebody comes home from the hospital, they need bling (or in the case of males, gadgets).  Lu has a new heart shaped bronze charm to replace the old one that had my old cell # and other outdated details.   She also got the water gadget, but like most females, is disinterested.  And she’s got good food – all patients like upgraded menu options.   


Lu’ is resting comfortably, waking up to eat, slurp a little water, get brushed, purr,  and curl up again.  I doubt she slept from Saturday to Tuesday.  


Anyway, I think we’re beyond crisis point and I appreciate all your support.  I realize Lu’ is just a cat, but as humans we have a responsibility to try to do right by the animals we bring into the world, take responsibility to care for, and who for their part bring an added dimension to our lives.  I maintain a hope that people who own pets might eventually change their feelings about other animals, despite that historical trends don’t appear to justify my optimism.   


I’m glad we were able to help out Lu’ – she has certainly earned at least this much.  


 – Rick

Asking Why

August 31, 2008

One theory of the universe is there is not one but an almost infinite number of universes.  Here are two:


You lead a major proposal effort to win that next big contract.  You spend more money than your company can afford.  A lot of people think you’re on an irresponsible path to destroying the entire enterprise, but you see a once in a lifetime opportunity to break out.  One day, an envelope arrives and you open it.


In one universe, you’ve grabbed the big brass ring.  You’re a hero, toasted at the win party – the Board loves you, the employees love you, the shareholders love you.  You are a visionary.


In another, bupkis.  You’re never given that responsibility again – you humbly return to your previous status of company nebbisch.  They don’t fire you – that would be too generous.  Rather you keep your head low in your cubicle and hope if not for mercy, for anonymity.  


Every day an uncountable number of outcomes occur – car accidents, encounters with old friends, wrong numbers dialed, glass stepped on – or not, you oversleep and show up late for an interview, but it provides an opportunity to show you can recover – or it doesn’t.  Your immune system fights off a bug, or not, resulting in a week in bed – or at work, depending.  In some of the cases where you succumb, it gets out of hand and you die, or you just infect everyone else in the house and they all miss a week of school or work.   Each one of these events branches out into a new set of alternative universes.  Imagine how many universes would be created per second, with billions of people and uncountable other creatures each doing things moment by moment.  But infinity is big enough to contain any number of universes, which makes this bizarre theory not provably wrong.


The web of alternative universes is not navigable – even our single universe is not knowable.  It’s impossible to know what paths the universe we are tracking will lead us down, let alone all those billions of alternative universes and their propagation paths.  


When your most beloved dies, your eyes are opened.  You are forced to realize the impermanence of everything.  Of course you always knew that in a logical sense.  If someone asked you – where will you be in one hundred years, you’d know the answer – dead and gone.  But until a big loss, that’s a complete abstraction you construct walls around, like a little nugget of Kryptonite, and you live comfortably knowing that box is there, but isn’t effecting you at the moment.  Your loss breaches the box.  Now it is not just real but abstract, at times a rapid dissolution into your eventual fate might seem even preferable to life without that person.


Your gaze penetrates deeply into depths you didn’t want to see.  You liked living in the warm shallows – comfortable swimming the sunlit reefs of daily life with its bike rides, meals with friends, ocean swims, rock music and comforts of home, family and friends.  You don’t want to see the dark unlit depths where the big predators are swimming, hunting, those cold and quiet waters.  The shallows now seem an illusion of a previous life.  You have your first experience in a new and frightening world, a reality more real than your present, temporal state.  You spend time lost among the alternative universes you never before thought about – the lands of what if.  


What if you had caught it sooner?  What if you had been more aggressive?  Tried that therapy instead of this one?  Made the trip to the famous medical center?  Not loaned the keys, made one more phone call, chosen a route off the main road.  What if the ambulance arrived sooner, what if you’d had that one more test, chosen a different hobby, kept your child in home schooling, had that operation when you were still young or well enough to endure it, eaten more broccoli.  What about the $600 you didn’t spend for ABS and traction control – or that job you didn’t take in the south where they don’t have snow, or the East where the earthquake probability is lower.  Was that trip necessary at all?  Can’t politicians work a little harder before calling up their armies?  Had the disease struck 10 years later, a cure would have been available, cheap and effective.   


And If death was inevitable, a proposition impossible to accept, what if you had been a better parent or spouse or friend, what if you hadn’t economized on that last vacation, what if you didn’t have that last fight over nothing?  Less time at work and in front of the laptop, more time in dinner conversation.  All those movies you didn’t see together, why not?  The gift you hadn’t yet given, the words not yet spoken.  The financial success that had always eluded you, your child’s graduation – couldn’t we have lived together for just one more milestone?


We can never know what is down all those roads – we can’t even see a day ahead on the road we’re on.  Had you not had those fights, it wouldn’t have been your life and their life and your relationship – it would have been a Disney version.  You could have flown all over the planet for a cure, only to exhaust your energy and bank balance and spoil your last months together in a fruitless, disappointing, Quixotic mission.  Catch it sooner and suffer even more months of anxiety?   Any number of disasters could have happened in that universe where you lived in the earthquake free midwest – a tornado, a tainted tomato, a drunk driver.  


I don’t believe that outcomes are completely beyond human control.  What we do matters – otherwise why pursue engineering, medicine, science – if the human condition has already been written in a book we can only read.  But neither do we control many big things.  There’s a Yiddish expression for our predicament of wishing we had navigated into a universe where we would have avoided our loss and our beloved’s suffering:  Mann traoch, Gott Lauch.  Man plans, God laughs.  


But how could God allow this suffering of an innocent person – maybe a child?  Now you find yourself reading thick philosophical tomes and thin pop-psyche pabulum.  The infinite domain of the irrational where there is no map, no simple formula that spits out the answer.  There are thousands of proposals – many created by humanity’s greatest intellects, but none of them any more than a convenient lens to imperfectly look at the unseeable unknowable.  Like soaking in saltwater to extract toxins, there’s no harm in immersing your mind in all that thought and speculation until your skin is wrinkled and you just can’t wait to get out of the tub.  


The wind is much stronger than I am.  There are days it gusts so strong it’s impossible to make progress on a bicycle – or even stay upright.  There is weather you and your aircraft are not going to penetrate in one piece.  God is greater than I am, than my aircraft, than my muscles and machines, than my planning and my theories of the nature of all things.  The only choices are – exhaustion fighting or awaiting a better day.  


Our only win strategy is to keep on keeping on – eventually a cold front will push through and I’ll coast in a massive tailwind, the skies will clear and freezing rain will be hard to imagine ever existed.  And in those beneficent intervals, we’ll rebuild our travels, our itineraries, our plans, our temples, our houses, our relationships, our families and our lives.  


Entropy is inexorable, but it is not the whole story.  Human will can rebuild.  Some of those great thinkers of the ancient world concluded that is our shared human mission – tikkun ha-olam – to build the world that is constantly subject to erosion  by chaos.  And in that rebuilding we experience God.  We don’t understand why wind, rain, entropy fight us, but they are all part of the universe which was made for us to dwell in.  One day we touch the wall 10 milliseconds sooner and grab the bronze, and another day we crouch in our cubicle, the thin envelope cast aside but nonetheless the biggest object in the office.  Our only choice is to keep building.   The effort may or may not be futile – we can never know if what we do can make a difference – that is written only in the unfolding of the many virtual universes yet to be selected.  It is only faith, the floating plank we cling to, that doing is preferable to not doing.  But  while we soak in salty waters that doing distracts us from the sting.

Cures for Jellyfish Stings

August 30, 2008

I have only my own childhood and only one brother as a sample set, but that unscientific basis has not deterred me from a simple conclusion – brothers fight.  And not just when they are 6 and 4 years old.  it’s a lifestyle choice.  Tom and I enjoy the adrenaline rush of potential annihilation just as much 50 years later as we did then.  The difference is only that we now don’t wrestle each other to the living room floor and slam doors in each other’s faces – we’ve learned more subtle and effective techniques.


I’m at a launch prep meeting at NASA KSC – Kennedy Space Center in Southeast Florida – never the toughest duty – and staying in the pre-Apollo era, and never since upgraded, Holiday Inn Cocoa Beach.  (Notice how much classier that sounds than Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn – which would imply just another hotel in Cocoa).  As the song said, it’s only words.  Fact is the HICB is the only place on the beach with rates as low as the government per diem.  You can choose between going deaf via the whining of the air conditioner grinding its shot motor bearings to dust all night, or prop the door open and sweat while the mosquitos feast on your ears.  But after a hot and sweaty day in meetings and maybe crawling around the shuttle bay, you can slip into running shorts, get even hotter and sweatier running on the beach, then dive into the Atlantic, which makes the rest of the HI experience totally worth it.   To me, anyway.


Except today a solid East wind had been blowing. I was only in the water a few minutes when I realized my skin was tingling, and a few minutes more of swimming and thinking about the strange sensations, I realized why – jellyfish.  Lots of them.  My arms and legs were covered with red streaks.


I made an adrenaline – fueled sprint back to the beach, ran up to the hotel and jumped in the freshwater pool – hoping to wash off some of the toxin – then retreated to my room and the company of my Anophelic room mates.  Things were looking, and feeling, genuinely painful by then.   My skin was burning, itching, red and swollen all over.


I was panicked – I know about as much about medicine and first aid as your average man on the street knows about building microsatellites – which is to say nothing.  It occurred to me to call Tom.  Granted he’s an orthopedist and doesn’t treat a lot of patients with toxic marine creature encounters, but he’s got to know more than I do.  Should I head for the ER stat?  Ice?  Antihistamines?   Steroidal skin cream?  Soap?  Topical alcohol?   I have no clue, but am beginning to wonder if I’m going to die in this little room.  


This was way pre-cell-phone, and I had to dial in to my Sprint account, then try Tom’s numbers at work – answering service – and then at home.   My fingers hurt just to punch the sticky buttons on the room’s phone.   Caught him just coming home from the hospital.  I laid out my dire situation.  


One nice thing about MDs, they mostly don’t lecture you on what an idiot you are.  I guess they realize their patient’s idiocy is making their house payment – or do they actually have pity on us unfortunates?  Maybe they know patients will migrate to MDs who withhold truth in favor of dignity.  I tend to doubt the more generous interpretation, but I’m glad to get to the point and save the lecture for later – if I live.  


He starts rattling off advice.  I have to get a pen and paper.  He starts over – salt, alcohol, soap, salves, cotton gauze – all sorts of stuff.  I have two hotel notepad pages of medications.  I think I can manage putting on shorts and a T, and driving, though it’s going to hurt.  Toughing it out is one of my specialties.  OK, I tell him, I’ll give it a try.  I planned to hang up abruptly, anxious to get going before things got much worse.  


By the way, is this going to work?  I ask reaching for the phone’s cradle.  Tom is a man of few words.  Just do it.  Call me back later. 


 I’m out the door.  Get in car.  Stifle desire to speed to CVS, a manic man on a mission, scanning the shelves under the florescents.  Visa card, keys, drive back.  Pour most of my haul in the bathtub and soak in it for 15 minutes.  Then pat dry and apply the rest of the contents onto my wounded skin. 


An hour later, $55 poorer, wetter, dryer and now covered with creams, things are no better.  But maybe no worse.  I’m suffering, but I’m no longer as certain I will die before morning.  I pick up the phone and call Tom with my update.  


Is any of this stuff really going to work?  I’m desperate for, lacking relief, at least  reassurance.


“There really isn’t anything you can do for Jellyfish burns.  But by the time you make the list, run out to CVS, soak, dry off, apply creams, it will start to go away by itself.”


You mean I could have skipped this whole exercise?  Silence is his response.


A shopping bag full of pharmaceuticals, an hour of running around and an hour in the tub to learn “time heals all wounds?”  


My brother is clearly enjoying this moment of non-communication over the long distance line.  The great surgeon finally offers: “You’ll be fine in an hour.  Watch TV, go for a walk, soak in the tub, swim in the pool, go buy vegetables or whatever it is you eat.  Watermelon – if it makes you happy.”.  


Score one for the big brother.  I spend the next hour walking to Publix for a watermelon and a knife, planning my revenge.  Maybe I’ll save the knife.



When the person you love dies, there are so many things you can do – and I’ve done all of them.  Cry, get mad, light candles, write books, set up memorial funds, erect shrines, pray, talk with friends, families, counselors and clergy, read books on death and dying, go for long long bike rides, and walks – alone and with friends, buy yourself something your loved one would have wanted you to have, invite everyone on the planet to a memorial service, sit in a room with all their stuff and recollect, have nightmares and dreams, or don’t sleep at all, get a dog or a cat, love the remaining people in your life more than you used to, challenge yourself with something new, try to appreciate life more than you used to, stop doing stuff you never wanted to do and start building a new life you like better, realizing this is the only one you’ve got, beat yourself up for being inadequate, or because you should have died instead, play what-if games until you can’t stand them anymore, imagine you’ll reunite with that person when you die (which does reduce the fear of death at least one iota), speak with your departed (who won’t answer), speak with your pet (ditto), sing out loud, set up a charitable fund in their name, put on your game face and go back to work, travel, throw yourself into projects, spend time alone, contribute to the departed’s favorite churches and synagogues, give all their stuff to the needy.  


All this Doing will take months, if not years, and will be exhausting.  Like my alcohol, bath salts, creams and salves, bandages and pills, none of it works.  But it’s something to do while time erodes the acute emotions into a palette that redraws your world in new, maybe darker, but also richer hues.  You’re not going to be 8 Crayola colors anymore – you’re more of a Rembrandt.   You are being reborn – your old self died with that person, and neither of you is coming back.  Your old skin is shed and everything hurts.  New skin only grows back slowly, and for a long time it’s thin and fragile.  


No injury is fun, but its paradox is that when you heal to a certain point, your confidence blossoms.  You walked through the valley of death, or in the case of injury, through pain and disability – and you survived, recovered, better than you thought you would.  


Nobody thinks they can do that, that they have the strength.  Not that they’d want to try.  Not that you had the choice.  You’re suffering, but you’re keeping alive.  You don’t want to be happy, your sadness is your memories and you have every right to keep them and to celebrate them through a measure of misery.   


Its bitter, but it’s yours.  Bitter can be nourishing too.  


I never found happiness in a broken clavicle – a mere nuisance by comparison.  But you can find confidence in your ability to make that journey, and with a new You that can  never quite go home again.  The new You will wander, a nomad without country, possibly forever.  The new You knows: to wander that desert is our shared human condition.

Immortal Corn

August 22, 2008

Having grown up in the midwest and spent a few weeks per year staying with my grandparents in Lima (where I visited my grandmother, Liesl, yesterday en route home from the West) I spent a lot of time in close range to corn fields.  In the ’60s I used to ride to there – Tom and I tried to do it in 1 day but never succeeded – it’s almost 150 miles which is a long way for two young kids on heavy Schwinn bikes.


Over many hours in the back seat of my grandparents’ big Oldsmobiles, and on bikes riding country roads with crop rows growing taller than I could see over, I developed my corn field analogy.  Imagine a space alien (S.A.) looking down at earth from a hovering UFO – maybe 5 miles up.  S.A. would possibly perceive corn fields as groups of individuals.  They are populations of similar, but not identical, live beings.  They appear alive, and pass through their own stages of life.  They live all over the country, in big cities (Iowa and Ohio farms) and small towns (I used to grow a few in our back yard in Cleveland in a six by twelve foot patch of mud in the back yard, sharing that space with grean beans and a pumpkin vine which never yielded anything bigger than a summer squash).  


S.A. has it about right – corn likes a community, is alive, and has its life cycle.  No two stalks are alike. Some are big and strong and dominant of resources.  Most just get by.  Some are outliers, on the edges of the field or even germinating far from the field, others are central, surrounded by others.  Some grow large ears, some none.  


Now imagine I am S.A. and corn is all the people around me.  So I am both observer and part of the observed population.  As S.A.  I find it far fetched that every one of these corn plants has an individual soul, an immortal soul, and will die only apparently to me as its observer, in fact to live forever with its corn neighbors in a heaven inhabited by God, His minions, and corn angels.  Presumably no corn blight organisms go to heaven, or if they do, it’s their own heaven, separated from corn heaven.  What about Indian Corn – the colored kernels – in fact there are hundreds of strains of corn – are they all in one heaven?  Or multiple?  Can they visit each other?  Sometimes there is Indian Corn mixed in with white or yellow corn, and presumably they interact in life – so how about in death?    And the bees that pollinate the corn?  They could be admitted, but in heaven corn doesn’t need pollination, so no bees either.  Maybe they have their own bee heaven somewhere else – but are bees happy without corn to visit?  And what does corn blight do in heaven if it can’t have corn to devour and spoil? 


Very soon this line of speculation gets too tangled to manage while pedaling under a hot sun.  Shifting perspective a little, how about cats and my beloved dog  Scotty, and the poor robin I killed with a BB gun – thinking a) I could never hit it perched on the electric wires that ran above the property line behind our house and b) if I did, nothing would happen to her.  Wrong on both counts, we buried Mr. Robin in our back yard.  Devastated, I made a tombstone for him with my wood burning set, placed his stiff body in a shoe box, and buried him next to the garage.  


 Surely Scotty would have a heaven.  She died, clinically, she drowned, in my lap in the back seat of my mom’s car as we raced to the vet – she was beyond old and had advanced COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).   Ever since then, and the drowning death of my bunk mate during a clandestine moonlit swim in the river near our YMCA summer camp, I’ve had a phobia of drowning.  Surely brave Scotty is in a heaven for dogs?  Else how can I believe in an afterlife for myself – one devoid of Scotty?   But if Scotty is in heaven, then why not robin?  And if robin, why not the flies?  I went through a long period as a child befriending house flies – which I later believed might have had something to do with dermal warts I suffered with – but who knows, maybe not.  In any case, if flies, how about ants, which I also protected and still don’t kill if avoidable, and ditto spiders.  And is corn not as smart as an individual ant?  Plants are really pretty clever – maybe it takes more brains to survive without the option to run from danger or move on when conditions turn difficult.  Corn copes.


My mother tells me that the reason my brother and sister were December babies, but I’m a Virgo is that a previous version of me miscarried and rather than miss a year, my dad and her elected to try again immediately.  So how about my unborn sibling – does he or she or it (maybe not yet sexually differentiated) qualify for Human heaven?  And when did the doors of human heaven open – I mean, in the evolutionary sense?  Did proto-humans, pre-homosapiens – get in?  And who decides when the first one got in?  What about his parents, who presumably, like the #2 against Michael Phelps, over a few billion years of evolution, was born 15 years before the official start of the homosapien era.  That first one of us doesn’t get to see his/her parents in homosapien heaven?    And no dogs in our heaven?  So what about me and Scotty?  I have to believe God can work these things out since I can’t.  But then, I couldn’t design a star or even a leaf, but He can, so presumably all these problems are solvable by God.


But for right now, what’s S.A. to make of all this?  S.A. doesn’t talk to people, corn, flies, birds, dogs, or spiders.  S.A. talks to other aliens from his planet, whom he presumably cares about and believes will live forever in heaven.  He is comforted that he’ll join them there at his end.


Where does this lead us?  To a nowhere that is pretty much where all this sort of speculation leads.  Spending enough time on a bicycle in the midwest, one is forced to become a Ghandian, a Nihilist, or possibly a Jew.


Or a midwestern kid enjoying a day on a bike riding the flat gridwork of Ohio’s country roads.  Beaver Cleaver incarnate.   Dogs, Cats and kids on bikes do not mind being a stalk of corn in a corn field of their populations.   They like it.  There’s  comfort in knowing that all our inadequacies, blown tests, idiotic things said in the Principal’s office, and inadvertant gaffs are part of our shared humanity.  There’s a few billion others who will succeed and the harvest doesn’t depend on me alone.  Some of us cover better than others, but whatever our individual styles, at harvest time, the field is plowed under, there’s no infinity in store for any of us, and the deck is shuffled again.  Time ends and the universe becomes a singularity of zero entropy – a new perfection.    New corn sprouts break the soil and at most enjoys nicely aerated footing to grow in as the legacy of its progenitors lives, struggles and deaths.  


Forty years later, I haven’t been able to improve on my cornfield philosophy.  It suffices for me to be a good, maybe even better than average, stalk of corn, appreciate all my neighbors whether I’m in the middle, on the edge, or rooted way across the other side of the road – a life altered by another of nature’s random events – maybe a strong wind at just a certain time.  If I have a few more or less ears, and my kernels are a little bigger, smaller, yellower or sweeter, it will average out.   And when the game is over, I won’t get in the way of the next year’s crop. If anything, my legacy might be to make the way of their roots a little easier.  Why waste my moments in the summer sun sacrificing to be yet another fading portrait in a museum?  My life, my ride, my support of the crop by being a productive part of it – that’s the value of the life of my hamster on its cedar chip and newspaper floor, my turtle living under her plastic palm tree, my poor departed red robin buried beneath his wood-burned tombstone, and me.  Failing even that modest ambition, the next generation will get by, and maybe grow even stronger, if I fail to make things too easy for them.  The best I can do, and maybe the only thing I can do, is leave them the room to play out, in their own ways, their own lives.