Book Review: Dreams From My Father

 Dreams from My Father

by Barack Obama

The woman who inspected my bag at the security gate of the Playboy Jazz Festival noticed the copy of Dreams from My Father that I had packed along with the wine and cheese. “Have you read it?” I asked. “No,” she said, “I’m a Republican.”

If I had asked whether she had ever heard Dave Brubeck in concert, I thought, would she have said, “No, I’m Episcopalian?” I took my bag and went inside, sad, puzzled and troubled by ill omens of things to come. I thought of Danny Glover’s character in the movie Grand Canyon in one scene where he said, “Oh, man, things ain’t supposed to be this way.”

Something has gone terribly wrong lately in the way people talk to other people, and by “other people” I mean people who do not happen to come from the same tiny enclave, church, cable channel, blog, twitter-feed or political clan. I don’t know why. It does not seem to be limited to the right or left, the religious or secular. There is a visceral, almost toxic reaction people seem to now have about “Others” that shuts down all discussion, all willingness to see the world through others’ eyes or even acknowledge that others may have legitimate reasons for thinking the way they do.

This is my second review of the Barack Obama book, Dreams from My Father. The first one I threw away. Which is sad, because I thought it was a very interesting study of Obama’s story in light of Joseph Campbell’s universal Hero-myth, comparing Obama’s spiritual search for his father with the myths of Orpheus, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and yes, even Star Wars and Harry Potter.

All very interesting, yet none of it, I’m afraid, convincing to a security guard at the Hollywood Bowl to whom the face on the cover is in itself a conversation stopper. She doesn’t know what the book is about, and she doesn’t want to know. I’ve tried to think of what I could have said to this person that would have made her even consider the possibility of opening up a copy of the book and reading a paragraph or two. I could have tried saying something like this:

“Politics aside, this is a great book. Not only may you be surprised by what you learn about the author and his story, but you might learn something about yourself as well. And who knows? Wonder of wonders, you may actually find that you are enjoying the process of reading a well-written and engaging book by a talented author.”

. . . . which would all be true, but even then I doubt that she would be convinced. One look at his face on the cover and there is simply nothing to discuss.

And so we arrive at a major theme of Obama’s book: How can people from different worlds and different tribes ever learn to communicate with each other? Unless we learn how to do that there is no hope.

Dreams from My Father was based on work originally commissioned in 1991 by book publishers seeking to capitalize on the notoriety of a young Obama, fresh out of law school, and the first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He had intended the book to be a systematic analysis and discussion of race relations in America, but as he confesses in the introduction, “When I actually sat down and began to write, though, I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores.”

Rocky shores indeed. As the son of Barack Senior, a black African man and Stanley Ann, a white mid-western woman, Obama’s very DNA is of two worlds conventionally considered mutually exclusive and antagonistic. Whether it was with his black friends’ refrain “that’s just how white folks will do you” or when his white grandmother was scared by a panhandler – not because he was big, but because he was black – the same theme emerges: people with whom he identified talked with fear about scary people from a foreign world called them, and Obama realized that in both cases he was them. In Dreams from My Father, after learning of his grandmother’s fear, he wrote:

The earth shook under my feet, ready to crack open at any moment. I stopped, trying to steady myself, and knew for the first time that I was utterly alone.

Indeed, the book is prefaced with a biblical epigraph from I Chronicles 29:15: “For we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.” While the significance of the passage in referencing fathers is clear, the key I believe lies in the word sojourner, a stranger, passing through a place not his home.

The author has a talent for writing clean simple prose and allowing emotions to emerge in concrete external things. As the story opens, Obama has just received a long-distance phone call from a stranger who says that she is his Aunt Jane in Nairobi, Kenya with news that his long-absent father was killed in a car accident. He describes the moment like this:

That was all. The line cut off, and I sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss.

I love this passage. In one sentence the writer has marshaled all five senses into an elegant haiku about a single moment, the un-measurable despair dripping from the plaster cracks. The book is filled with such word-craft, making one eager to press on through the narrative for further rewards.

Though he initially planned to travel to Africa to attend the funeral, Obama decided at last not to go. In spite of this, the tragic event of his father’s death sets in motion the idea of a journey within Obama, a need to come to terms with the stories told about his father, and the stories he told himself, and a quest to find and reclaim his own identity and find a place called Home

In part one, Origins, he traces his childhood first in Indonesia and then Hawaii, growing up with his white mother and grandparents, attending college and ending with his memory of a brief and only visit from his father. He determines that he must somehow find him. In part two, Chicago, he embarks on an idealistic project working as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago. Things do not go well at first and the presence of machine politicians with agendas gums up the works. He eventually begins to have small victories, and in the process meets many people who later become significant in his life such as the controversial and outspoken Reverend Wright who coined the phrase “The Audacity of Hope.” In the third and final part, Kenya he travels to Africa and meets the Obama side of his extended family. He learns the long story of the Obama clan and the battles fought between his father and authoritarian grandfather.  culminating in a profound and gut-wrenching epiphany by the author at the stone-covered grave of the father he never knew.

The people who populate his story are complex and three dimensional human beings. You care about them even if they sometimes annoy you. Obama does not let you off the hook with easy stereotypes such as the “Caring Mother” or the “Corrupt Chicago Mayor.” People have reasons for what they do and often have doubts. Even in his self-portrayal, Obama relates his inner thought processes and dialectic struggles, and admits that he does not know all the answers — in a way that makes me understand now why he can sometimes be infuriating to both sides of the political spectrum. For Obama, as for all of us, the answers are never simple and sometimes our opponents really do have valid points.

It is not a spoiler to tell you that in the end Obama returns from his vision-quest and the transformation at his father’s grave with newly found wisdom. If our security guard at the jazz festival could read only one passage from this book that is the distillation of the contents, I could do no better than recommend to her (and you) the concluding words Barack Obama addresses to his father regarding the great and dangerous powers of the modern world and its only hope:

…That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead – a faith in other people.

The Big Picture

Gigi and I live in the high desert of southwest Utah, along the banks of the Virgin River and surrounded by red sandstone mesas whose foundations were set down during the Triassic era, about 230 million years ago. The dinosaurs were just starting to appear on the scene at that time, but they proved to be one of the most successful species known, and dominated the earth for over 160 million years, and were only brought down after the earth collided with a huge meteor or comet that had it been only slightly larger would have destroyed the entire planet for good.

Humans in their current form have only been on the scene for a mere 200 thousand years. If we can somehow manage to keep from killing ourselves off for another equally short period of time, and then repeat that unbelievable feat again four more times, we will have succeeded in surviving one half of one percent of the time that tiny-brained dinosaurs managed to survive.

And yet, here we are for the moment at least, the dominant species on the planet. So, what is the big picture?

In the short term (tens of millions of years), the earth should expect to see another dinosaur-killer sized meteor collide with the earth. This is a regular occurrence on those time scales. The last time this happened, 65 million years ago, most large terrestrial animals were killed off, and only a few tiny shrew-like mammals survived (who later evolved into humans). If we remain bound to this one planet, we are therefore doomed, along with cows, pigs, lions and just about anything larger than a gerbil. Assuming that we as a species want to continue on for a while, we will have to start making permanent homes off-planet, but close enough that after a big meteor hit the folks off-planet can eventually come back and try to clean things up a bit. Mars is about the only planet nearby that we could make habitable and which we can reach in a year or two. So that is the short term goal.

Longer-term, alas, the sun and our entire solar system is doomed. The sun, a second generation yellow dwarf star, was born just under five billion years ago and is now middle aged. However, long before it goes into its red-giant phase five billion years from now, in less than a billion years the sun will have become so much hotter that no liquid water will exist on earth, and life will become unsustainable. We have already begun looking around for nearby star systems which may host earth-like planets within the galactic habitable zone and far away from our aging sun. Assuming we have already learned how to terraform planets like Mars, that won’t be the issue. The problem is in very long range transportation, building a craft that can get us to far away systems, and keep alive colonies of people and other creatures for the many generations that it would take to get there.

In the very long range, the entire galaxy is under assault. The Andromeda galaxy is heading straight for us and will collide in about two billion years, ripping the entire spiral structure of our habitable zone apart. I have no idea how to deal with this problem, but a billion years is certainly enough time to think about it.

One way or another, these are really interesting problems, and the process of finding the answers is a very exciting one. And not only do we need the best and brightest minds to be thinking about these things and exploring all other branches of science, but we also need artists, composers, philosophers, writers, actors, doctors, businessmen and all other branches of human endeavor to throw themselves into their craft, whose ultimate product is the creation of meaningfulness out of chaos, of clarity out of confusion, of joy out of misery, health out of sickness.

To do that requires a passionate dedication to life on this planet, to science, to understanding, to dialog, to open mindedness and what Richard Feynman called “the Joy of Finding Things Out”.

And so, in regards to thoughts about September 11, 2001: what an incredibly stupid and pointless question about stupid and pointless acts spawned by stupid and pointless people stuck in the twelfth century, and our stupid and pointless response to those acts. Do you want to know how we should answer such people? Just yesterday (Sept. 8), in Promontory, Utah — A full-scale test of the world’s largest solid rocket motor, which was originally envisioned to power a new NASA rocket, went off without a hitch in Utah’s high desert.

We who choose to think are on our way to the stars. Let those who wish us all to bow our heads mindlessly, live by faith and folktales and worship ghosts in the mud can go to whatever hell their archaic mythology describes.

Holiday Message

Funny how people make their gods so small that they will fit neatly inside their tiny little 6000 year-old worlds and even smaller horizons and petty prejudices. Once upon a time long ago I believed in an infinite judeo-christian god, until I discovered mathematics and learned how to count to infinity (aleph-null, the smallest infinity of all), and how to enumerate the stars in the sky. Light traveling a trillion miles a year takes over a hundred thousand years just to cross the diameter of our little galaxy, one of a hundred billion such known galaxies. Likewise, our galaxy consists of half a trillion stars, of which our tiny solar system is only one on a far end of a minor spiral arm, governed by laws we have only recently found the mathematics to describe. Odd that such a vast system of immense complexity and exquisite mathematical perfection would be created by a divine entity of such little intelligence and pathetically low self-esteem that it requires weekly services of ego-boosting and thanks and praise, conducted by nanoscopic creatures on an imperceptibly small portion of its creation. When will people learn that the master creator of all things can take care of herself just fine, thank you very much, so why don’t you all get on with your own lives and take better care of each other on this beautiful little azure planet and stop killing each other in the creator’s name (upon which you cannot and never will agree)?

You would think by now we would have learned to be humble, but with each passing year we further confuse knowledge with wisdom, and show ourselves to be ever more unwise, trapped in ever more clever mazes of our own unwise devising. Only when confronted by a mirror into our own souls, can the truth be seen of our own foolishness — as was the case with mathematicians in the 1930’s, when they discovered proof that they will never have all the answers. Undecidability theorems as they were called, were developed by Kurt Gödel and were rigorous mathematical proofs that no matter how smart and complex a mathematical theory was, you could always find a question which could not be answered by that theory. Radical as it may seem, even if you were allowed to spend all eternity writing postulates and axioms to cover all possible subjects and cases, at the end of time your infinitely-refined system will still have gaps, and there will still be some questions that it does not answer (in fact, an infinite number of them!)

Humility — the awareness of our limitations as finite beings — is apparently the most difficult of all virtues to keep. Even physicists, the close-cousins to mathematicians, have not learned the lessons taught by Gödel, and still cling to arrogant hope that they are soon going to find a mathematical “theory of everything” — a hope which we mathematicians now know is hubris, doomed to failure. All religions proclaim their own infallibility and the heresy of all others, all countries claim to be the envy of the world, all football teams inspire their fans to maniacal chauvinistic loyalty, all parents know what’s best for their children, all people everywhere fail to ask themselves the simplest of questions: what if I’m wrong? Robespierre never asked this question, as he sent hundreds of innocent Frenchmen to the gallows, in the name of the revolution’s infallible truth. Truth, and man’s toxic addiction to the idea of Truth and the dangerous illusion that absolute Truth is knowable to man and is possessed by some prophet or president or economic theory, is the subtle poison that is killing humanity day by day, by robbing it of its heart, of its humility, of its humor, of its — humanity.

Kindly repeat after me, leaders and teachers and parents and preachers of the world, if you wish your people to truly live a healthy and happy life. What if I’m wrong, what if I’m wrong, what oh what if I’m wrong?

This Floating World

mandalaWe had heard that Tibetan Buddhist monks were up in Springdale this past week, and were constructing a traditional Tibetan mandala sand painting. On Saturday November 20 we drove up to watch the monks put their finishing touches on the elaborate and delicate mandala. The purpose of this ceremony is to emphasize the transient nature of life and all phenomena. The mandala that the monks constructed here in Springdale was a representation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who embodies Buddhist principle of Compassion, and is also regarded as the patron deity of Tibet. This picture (above) is the best photo I was able to take of their final work, and it still does not capture the lush color and beauty of the painting that sat on the table before us.

monk.jpgWhen we arrived at the Canyon Community Center the monks were in the final stages of the project, under the watchful gaze of a photo of the Dalai Lama in a small altar on the stage. The large hall was filled with the sound of monks chanting and throat-singing as they concentrated on the task of dropping individual grains of sand onto the painting. The instrument that they used to do this was a thin hollow metal tube called a chak-pur, which had a sort of washboard edge that the monks would scrape rapidly with a stick.

This produced an intriguing almost musical sound, though its main purpose was to cause the sand to flow out of the end of the tube and onto the painting. In this recording you can hear the chanting of the monks and the scraping of the sticks on the washboard surface of the tubes; I like that the incidental sounds of children talking is mixed in, with the rumble of conversation. The esoteric and the divine, integrated seamlessly with everyday life. There is no difference between the two, they seemed to say, and it did not matter who you were — even the fundamentalist Mormon women, in their robin’s egg blue prairie dresses, came to watch and admire the work of these Buddhist monks.

After the monks had completed the mandala, they allowed the public to observe the painting for one hour before they destroyed it with a brush, gathering all the colored sand into a dull gray pile. Half of the sand was placed into small plastic bags for those observers who wanted them, and the rest was poured into the Virgin river. We took a small bag of the sand home with us.

Though from a distance the blended sand appears gray, on close inspection you can still see the individual colors of each grain that went into the painting. By my estimate the average grains are a few thousandths of an inch in diameter, and so the number of grains in the entire painting must have been somewhere around a hundred billion, or roughly the same as the number of stars in the galaxy. It would take a very long time to try to sort these grains back out into the original colors and reconstruct a similar painting, and of course you shouldn’t try.

It has now been five months to the day since my mother passed away. One week she was lying in a hospital bed, alive and joking with us all, full of life and colorful personality, and the next Monday all that was left was a small three by five by eight inch box of ashes. The box seemed so light in my hand; how is it possible that this gray dust was once Lucille? I do not know. All I know is, the simple knowledge that a sand painting would only exist in its current form for one hour on a wooden table in Springdale Utah on November 20 made me appreciate each moment that it existed, and made me poignantly aware of the amazing thing of beauty that it was and to appreciate what joy it brought to people in its tiny span of existence in this wild floating world we call home.

The Lost Speech

The Plaque

Just down the block from Rosie’s Pub in Bloomington Illinois, on the southwest corner of Front and East streets, there now stands a dull, grey, nondescript concrete parking structure. At the foot of this structure is a low horizontal set of equally bland concrete blocks set in a row, next to a concrete bench whose sole purpose is apparently to provide a place for weary pedestrians to sit and admire the “One Way” sign posted on the corner.

Bloomington_Il_Lost_Speech_site_plaqueNext to the bench and out of view of those weary pedestrians is a tarnished brass plaque, set in limestone brick and mounted on one of the concrete blocks. It has clearly seen better years — 90 of them to be precise — the sole survivor of more than one building that has risen and fallen at that same corner on that same street, in that same town. And the plaque will most likely still stand at that spot 90 years from now, when the parking structure will likewise be torn down to be replaced with something else equally fresh, new and imminently forgettable. On the plaque is written the following words:

This tablet marks the site where
ABRAHAM LINCOLN
delivered his famous
“Lost Speech”
May 29, 1856

Abraham Lincoln gave many great speeches in his time, some of great passion and transcendent language. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and others equally well known and capitalized, are filled with phrases that have become iconic. Though often spoken extemporaneously, the speeches were all duly written down and recorded by reporters and others present at these events, and published countless times. With that in mind, then, consider then the following two facts

  • The fiery speech Lincoln gave at this spot at the state Republican convention in Bloomington in 1856 was said by many present to be the greatest speech Lincoln ever gave or ever will give, and not only set the course for the fledgling national Republican party over the next century, but placed the little-known senator from Illinois on the track to the Presidency.
  • Nobody alive today knows what on earth it was that he said.

I find those two facts, taken together, to be absolutely startling — only to be outdone by the even more startling fact that I’ve managed to reach the age of 52, never having heard this story before. Indeed, if more intriguing stories like this had been told when I was a kid, I might have taken a stronger interest in my History studies. It is a great mystery and an enigma which we will never solve. And in some ways, I kind of like it like that. But in others, I really wish I knew what it was that he said.

The Background

In her book “Team of Rivals”, this historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the events of the previous weeks and months that led up to this speech. Debate had been raging for some time over the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court, led by chief justice Roger B. Taney, had decreed that the black man “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. More recently, the issue of whether the new western states of Nebraska and Kansas should be allowed to legalize the practice of slavery divided the old Whig party and ultimately led to its dissolution.

Very much like today, the political climate and quality of dialog over the issues had become dysfunctional at best, and caustically toxic at worst. Talk of secession had already begun in the South. There were many hot topics at the time, but the big issue was slavery, its continuation in the south and possible extension into the new states out west. Just one week before the Illinois convention, the atmosphere surrounding the debate had become so poisonous that South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks walked up to senator Charles Sumner with a heavy cane and savagely beat the senator until he was bloody and unconscious. Though the senator survived and was able to return after three years of recuperation, the news of the event radicalized both sides of the already polarizing issue.

The Speech

And so it was in this climate that Abraham Lincoln walked up to the stage on May 29, 1856 to deliver a speech to the Illinois Republican convention, which at the time was a motley crew of disaffected folks of many political stripes, “old-line Whigs, bolting Democrats, Free-Soilers, Know Nothings, and abolitionists.” By all reports, Lincoln’s speech was raw, fiery, and full of wrath and righteous indignation. Lincoln, who up to that time had watched his words carefully, had at last had enough, and in this speech, the gloves had come off and he spoke his mind, and used his now finely honed skill at extemporaneous wordcraft to its highest application.

The speech lasted for several hours, and grew in intensity, interrupted every few minutes by louder and louder shouts and applause and stamping of feet. According to Goodwin’s book, “So enthralled were those in the audience that the reporters cast aside their pens so as to concentrate on what Lincoln said, and the unrecorded speech has become known to history as the famous ‘Lost Speech.'” Those who had entered the hall as an unorganized collection of angry and upset individuals from various walks of life, emerged by the end of the evening an energized and united force: the first members of what became the national Republican party, which would see Abraham Lincoln elected as the 16th president.

And to this day, that is all that we know about this speech.

Over the years that followed there were a number of claims and attempts by people who attended that speech to reconstruct what Lincoln said from memory, or to point out other speeches of Lincoln’s that borrowed bits from this seminal speech. But after publication, none of these reconstructions were approved and validated by others who were there. More recently, some historians have conjectured that the text of the speech was so incendiary that it was intentionally suppressed, in fear of even further dividing the country. That such a conspiracy of many hundreds of individuals over such a long period of time could be maintained challenges credulity.

What Lincoln Said

One thing that we do know about the core of Lincoln’s philosophy was that it can be paraphrased like this: Opinions of justices of the supreme court notwithstanding, the work of the founders of this country was not finished when they wrote the Constitution: that document is just the start of a work-in-progress, driven by its creator’s vision. And that vision can be best expressed, not by the Constitution itself, but by the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, which contains the phrase:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed[…]

Doris Goodwin in her book and others elsewhere have written about Lincoln’s desire to put these words of the Declaration of Independence into codified law and practice. Goodwin quotes Lincoln in a letter to Joshua Speed:

“How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.

and regarding the recent activities of the “Know Nothing” anti-immigration party, he continued:

“When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.

(were Lincoln writing today, he would have no doubt also added “…and gays and muslims“).

Lincoln took at its word the Ninth amendment of the Constitution, which stated that the “rights” enumerated by the Constitution should not be considered exhaustive, but that there are other rights that are possessed and retained by the people. These other rights, Lincoln knew, are those unalienable rights which were not “created” by a government and bestowed upon a person, but are those natural rights which all men, all human beings possess by nature of being men, and which can never be taken from them.

The existence of natural rights is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. Lincoln believed that this was a great flaw in the document, and his life’s work was to bring the laws of the states and country more in line with the idea of the universal rights of man, regardless of color, religion, or even citizenship. This was also the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr, who also quoted the Declaration of Independence, and whose realization remains to this day a work largely unfinished.

Why This Matters

All that we know for sure is what Lincoln had been saying over and over, in the years leading up to that speech, and what he said after. And that makes The Lost Speech all the more tantalizing, because knowing that up to this point he was speaking to the general public, and afterwards was delivering campaign speeches, only on this one occasion was he speaking his innermost thoughts and heart and mind to truly kindred spirits, without censorship or hesitation.

It seems that there is something in a man that when the moment finally comes to speak their true mind, and all guards have come down, the words take on a weight and a glow of authenticity that pulls you in, because at some level you know that you are witness to one of those singularly rare moments to see, for just a moment, the raw power and depth of passion that is possible within one man’s soul. That is what I think made the reporters and all others present drop their pencils and listen: because the voice and the moment demanded it.

How To Read a Poem

(after listening to one too many poetry readings)

How To Read a Poem

and for all that you keep holy please DROP
that whiny-assed sing-song whimper-will

you are reading to human beings
— do you hear? —
made of blood and clay
and sperm and shit and brains.

know your audience:

lovers who’ve fucked themselves into screaming madness
on wintry granite mountaintops, flecked with snow
amidst bristlecone pines born before Jesus

philosophers who’ve whittled matter down to quantum formula
and in one such coffee-stained scribble — for just a moment —
swore that they saw fingerprints of divinity

soldiers who’ve spit from sandy teeth
bits of friend’s livers and spleen
flung by roadside bombs in Basra

memento mori, dear reader at the podium:
you, too, will slam into a brick wall some day.

so speak from the rumbling earth,
and grumble that metaphor and essential trope
from your salivating cunt,
from your enraged cock,
and read like you’ve got a gun pointed to your head
(for you do),

and not like you’re ordering
a god-damned chamomile tea.

The Past Exists

When some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door recently and asked about my own faith, I told them that I was a “secular buddhist” — which is to say I considered myself a non-theistic person guided by a scientific preference for direct evidence over dogma, and in grey areas of emotional and spiritual life and issues of teleology am informed by a more or less buddhist sensibility that rejects the split between this floating world and some Platonic ideal.

Whew!

So, the perennial question arises: how does a purely secular person who does not embrace the colorful stories of an infinite, personal God and of an eternal, indestructable soul find Hope or Meaning in this one, small finite life amidst a cold impersonal universe ?

Consider this entry (and its title) to be my own offering to you all, in the spirit of the holidays. It’s a bit long winded and technical in parts, but if you can just suspend disbelief for the moment, I promise that by the end you will, at least, have a glimpse into another way of Looking at Things, that if not as bright and shiny as the stained glass of a church, is still a very good story in its own right, and at least makes the adventure of life seem a good and worthwhile thing, while simultaneously taking the hard and painful edge off of the prospect of inevitable Death. Not only that, but unlike most inspiring stories it may actually turn out to be true.

But First, a Little Astronomy

orionHere is a picture of the constellation Orion that I took a month ago, while standing outside our house on a cold and freezing midnight, watching the Geminid meteor shower (click to enlarge the photo). I put the camera on a tripod and set it for a 30 second exposure, cranking down the aperture so the stars wouldn’t be such large blobs. There is still a little bit of smearing in the picture due to the rotation of the earth.

There are many stars and nebulae inside this constellation, but the brightest and most noticeable ones consist of the four stars forming the outer corners of Orion, along with the three in the middle forming the “belt”. The orange star in the upper left corner, for example is the red-giant called Betelgeuese, which is approximately 640 light-years from earth. Diagonally opposite, in the lower right corner, is the blue supergiant Rigel, roughly 770 light years away. The other stars in the constellation range in distance from just 26 light years up to 32,000 light years away.

The Orion (Crab) nebula is difficult to discern in this picture, and I would need to go for a very long exposure (with telescope star-tracking mount) to bring it out clearly. It is one of the three “stars” that form a vertical “sword” beneath the belt. Parenthetically, two days after this picture was taken we watched a movie called “The Fountain” with Hugh Jackman, in which Orion and its Crab Nebula were featured prominently. An interesting movie, which reminded me a bit of “Pan’s Labyrinth” — but I digress.

A Simple Question
Before I go on, I would like to pose a question about your own beliefs: do you believe that those stars and nebulas in the Orion constellation actually exist, in the same way that the upholstered chair you are sitting in exists, and with the same, near-absolute, level of certainty? You don’t have to tell me your answer, just hold on to that thought for a moment.

What We Now Know
You might have noticed that when I listed out the stars in the constellation that I used the traditional unit of “light-year” to indicate how far away those stars were. It seems a bit strange, I’m sure, to have a time-flavored word like “year” involved in a unit of distance, but that is really an essential clue to the modern view of the universe. A light-year is simply the distance that light travels in the vacuum of space in a single year, roughly six trillion miles. It makes really big distances a lot easier to work with. There are twelve light-months in a light-year, for example, and sixty light-minutes in a light-hour. Our own sun is just eight light-minutes from Earth, which sounds a lot less daunting than 93 million miles.

Alas, like a parent with a child nearing puberty, the time has now come for us to sit down and have a mature, frank discussion about Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. There is simply no way around it. Take a deep breath. The childhood days with all those stories you were told to make things simple have now passed. To get along in the world of adults, where Newton’s and Aristotle’s and Plato’s model of the world are quaint toys to be put away, you must unlearn some things you thought to be “True”, and try to accept what has been learned about the Way the World Works. Nobody wanted it to be this way, not even the scientists, not even Einstein, but the results of hundreds of thousands of experiments rejected all other possibilities, and with great humility the scientists had to let go of the old stories that they once held dear, and begin to think differently.

Here is the old story that they once held dear:

The world is all the stuff in space that you see around you, and time is something different, a thing that passes as the stuff moves around in space. The world moves through time.

Here is the new story, as told by Einstein:

Time is made out of the same stuff as space, and the two seemlingly different things are part of a single whole continuum we call the Cosmos.

spacetimeLike most children who have heard dark rumors about the adult world and what they do behind closed doors, you may have heard things about something called “space-time”. Almost certainly the rumors you have heard have come out mangled, half-truths, with the wrong picture. Most likely, the idea you have gotten is that “space-time” is something where you take the three dimensions of space in which our world exists, and then tack on a time-axis to make it four-dimensional. That is actually the old view, the one that Newton and Lagrange and all the others have always used. Here, for example, is a space-time diagram of the (blue) earth orbiting around the sun over the course of a year.

The new view is that what “space-time” means is there is really only a single substance (what should we call it? Spice?), and if you grab a glob of it near you, you can if you like draw some lines in it and call them “time” and “space”, but those lines are completely arbitrary, and the direction you travel through the “spice” are completely up to you. Space and Time are interchangeable, and the “exchange rate”, expressed as a ratio of space-per-time, just happens to be c, also known as the speed of light.

Thinking Differently
In this new view, there are many words which we have always used, which need to be modified or understood differently. Even the rules of grammar and syntax need to be changed.

For example, as I write this, there is a classical guitar in its case, leaning against the wall of my office, about ten feet from my desk. That is the old way of looking at things. Light travels about a foot in a nanosecond (a billionth of a second), and so the distance between me and my guitar can also be said to be about ten nanoseconds. In both cases I am measuring the same “spice”, using different units. The guitar that I am looking at is actually the one that existed ten nanoseconds ago. There is no difference between separation in space, and separation in time, because they are the same stuff.

As a parenthetical note, there is one old word that anticipated the modern view and which really should be revived: the word “Whence”. It refers to a location, but has the word “when” in it, merging the two ideas of space and time into one.

The thing that sparked the whole Special Relativity thing was the discovery that the speed of light is constant, as it passes through space time. What is not so well known is that this does not just apply to light, but that (according to relativity) every single thing, every single particle of any type in the universe passes through space-time at a fixed, constant speed, which is — surprise! — the speed of light. This speed never changes, ever; the only thing you can control is the direction, which can be more through time or more through space. Even if you are just sitting in your chair, not moving, in space-time you are traveling in an almost 100% “time-like” direction at the speed of light. If you then get in a spaceship and fly off, your motion will now be moving a lot faster through space and, since your speed through space-time is constant, it means you are traveling through time a bit slower. That’s why scientists say that folks who come back from space are a tiny bit younger than they would have been if they had never left. The clocks that they carry with them also appear to verify this.

So, what does all this have to do with life, death, meaning and immortality?

The Past Exists
If you may recall, I had asked you all if you would agree that the stars in the Orion nebula actually exist. The stars that we are talking about are far away, and I had noted that they ranged in distance from 26 light years to over 32 thousand light years away. From the new view of the world, a light year (in distance) is equal to a year (in time), since they both measure the same stuff. So, the star you are looking at that is 26 light years away is the light from that star that left 26 years ago. And the star that is 32 thousand light years away is also 32 thousand years in the past. And yet, you agreed with me that these particular stars exist.

This is true, because the one, difficult to believe, thing that appears to be correct is: The Past Exists.

Let’s be very clear about this: in every sense in which you customarily say something right in front of you exists, the things and events which we think of here and now as being in the Past, actually still exist, as real and as tangible parts of the Cosmos as the classical guitar that rests against the wall of my office, waiting to be played.

This is not an idle speculation, and it has real consequences. Let’s go back to the Orion constellation for a moment. There is a minor star in that constellation called “13 Orionis”, which is 92 light-years away. Let us suppose that you are still having a hard time buying the new idea that the past exists, but that you will grant me the likelihood that the star 13 Orionis has not gone anywhere in the last 92 years and so the same star is still out there, now, as we speak in “the present time”, where you agree that things-that-exist actually live. Suppose that around that star, right now, are orbiting some very powerful telescopes, which can not only see the Earth, but can pick out the people wandering around on it (this is technologically possible with big enough scopes). The light from Earth that they are receiving now left our planet 92 years ago, in 1917.

snow_1917Why did I choose this particular star? 1917 was the year that my grandparents, Lennye and Norvis (Nick), were graduating from highschool in Kentucky, already dating each other and trading letters. Anyone who is now manning the scopes around 13 Orionis and who decides to focus in on western Kentucky will soon be treated to the view of Lennye and Nick, laughing in the snow. Nick has already fallen to the ground and Lennye is about to pummel him with a snowball. They have their whole lives ahead of them, and the America that they know is young, the idea of World War does not exist yet. And they are alive and happy, now, as seen by those watching from the telescopes orbiting the star called 13 Orionis.

The Past Exists. Now. In this world we call the Cosmos.

Being Finite
Unless you are four years old, the idea that some of your friends now live a thousand miles away probably does not bother you. Nor should it. Sure, you do not have the ability to be both here and a thousand miles away, but as an adult you are able to sleep well, knowing that your friends are still alive and kicking, in their own homes a thousand miles away. If you push this a bit, it should also not bother you if they were instead a billion miles away, or even six trillion miles — which is to say, a light year — which is to say, a year in time. If a friend passed away a year ago, then, it should not bother you too much. If what we know now is true, your friends are still alive and kicking, in a part of space time that is a measurable distance away: twelve trillion miles, which is to say two light years. So, just as it does not bother you that your own life only spans five or six feet vertically and a foot or so horizontally, it should not bother you that your home in space time is roughly half a quadrillion miles in the long direction. That is the size of your home, and it’s where you live.

So Now What?
So what does this mean? What should a person who comes to accept this idea do with it. What should one do?

Here is my own suggestion, humbly submitted: it means that this life, this span of space-time in which we live our days, is a finite canvas on which we are free to paint whatever kind of experience we choose. The canvas, though finite and bounded in both space and time, is eternally part of the fabric of the Cosmos, and will at any moment once more become visible to someone, somewhere, somewhen, who chooses to look in that particular direction at that particular moment. So what it means is, you have only a small canvas on which to paint, so make it good, and to the best of your ability, make it beautiful.

Or, failing that, at least make it entertaining, and throw a few really good snowballs at someone that you like for good measure.

Desert Life

I wrote this piece a few months ago but only now have gotten around to posting it. December has arrived and the little frogs mentioned below are now gone with the advent of snow and 40-degree temperatures. I will keep you all updated as soon as they return, which should be some time in the Spring…

Snoozing FrogThe first day that we arrived in Utah the owner of our rental house introduced us to several “pets” that had adopted the place, in the form of several greenish-gray frogs that snooze in the shade of the front windows during the blazing afternoon. I sent a picture of them to Mom, who thought they looked “spooky”, mostly due to the military gray. It’s not their fault; the frogs (which I think are desert forms of spring peepers) seem to be able to change their color to match the background, and as they are mostly nighttime creatures, they spend most of the day sleeping, and doing everything they can to look like shiny river rocks.

In the morning the air was clear, dry and (slightly) cool 70’s. The house had not been inhabited for some time, and I suspect that the local children had gotten used to the idea of exploring the grounds around the place in the morning, riding skateboards on the front porch and so on. In my college days we called the kids that would poke around campus “Urchins”. This happened enough in the first few days of our arrival that I made a point to open the door when they passed through and say hi. I didn’t really mind their wandering around, but worried that they would turn on the gas barbeque in the back without lighting it. I also didn’t want them bothering the frogs, who must be very tired after hopping and chirping around the yard all night and the last thing they need is to be pestered by some eight year old boys, eager to conduct scientific experiments.

The boys do seem to have a scientific bent around here. I was on my way to our mailbox down the street when a boy who could not have been more than 7 called over to me from across the street. He was holding aloft a large rock, as if it was a tropy. “Look at this piece of petrified wood I found!” he announced. “Found it on the ridge over there. Must be over three pounds!”. I congratulated him on his find and he wandered on down the street, I assume, to alert the media.

By noontime it has cranked up to 100 plus, and though still dry it is blazing and not even mad dogs or Englishmen (let alone urchins) would make an appearance in this noonday sun to join the armored beetles, praying mantis and various lizards, doing pushups on the rocks in the back yard. Around 5 pm I would venture out to the mailboxes down the street to check the mail. It is very peaceful.

The town next to La Verkin is called “Hurricane”. This is pronounced “Hurrahcun”, and rhymes with GW Bush’s “Amurahcun”. I have long held the theory that locals mispronounce their town’s name so that they can easily spot outsiders. In any case, Hurricane lives up to its name, and in the afternoons the winds kick up something fierce, sometimes getting up to 60 mph, which is indeed Hurrahcun force. This is followed soon after by the occasional thunderstorm. I realized soon that my investment in barbeque grill covers was sadly lacking, as it only took a fews days of the afternoon sirrocco to reduce my vinyl cover to shreds. I’ve ordered a much more substantial cloth-lined and reinforced cover since then.

photo_fldsWe are definitely no longer in Connecticut — or California for that matter. From the Slice-o-Life Department: while walking through the Home Depot the other day, I spotted a couple of fundamentalist Mormon women. They are pretty easy to spot, with their signature light-blue or white floor-length prairie dresses (right out of the 1800’s), and swept-back hairstyles (a few FLDS kids heading back to their truck are shown at right). The wives sharing the same husbands usually have matching outfits, to distinguish themselves from those having different husbands. To be fair, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether some of them are co-wives or daughters; this may be by design.,, In any case there were two of them in matching dresses, walking along the herb plants of the garden section of the Home Depot. Over the past month I have begun to accept this as a common sight, and no longer do a double-take when I encounter them in the next aisle of the grocery store. In this case, however, what was notable was the younger of the two wives: she was pushing their cart, and in her ears she was wearing a pair of ear-buds, listening to music on her iPod.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Hope against Hope

Hey folks,

As much as I am a fan of Obama’s message of the power of Hope, to be honest, I am troubled, and worried, and not just about the looney teabaggers and Dick Armey’s xenophobic brown-shirts. Maybe it’s because last year I read John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Great Depression”, and have now just finished John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, and all that talk about collapse amidst economist assertions that “The Fundamentals of the Economy are Sound”, and all the folks leaving their homes and farms and hitting the road got me into a bit of a funk.

wileBut I don’t think so. There have been times lately when I’ve had the feeling that we are all just like the poor coyote in the “Road Runner” cartoons, and have just run off the road at the top of the mesa and as we speak are in that surreal span of ten or twenty seconds it takes for the coyote to realize that he has no ground to stand on, looks out to the audience with a doomed expression as he realizes that Gravity is Now in Effect.

Okay, so everybody now seems to be saying that the economy is on the upswing, the stock market has been shooting up since March, and gold is now over a 1000 dollars an ounce because everyone thinks that all these dollars pumped into the economy will result in a decay of the value of the dollar with resulting price increases. The worst case that anyone on main street seems to be talking about is a Carter-level “stagflation” where prices would start going up but the economy would remain stagnant. And as the market continues its current rally the government continues to pump in more stimulus and we have “turned the corner.”

Hmm.

Am I the only one around here (besides Gigi and her “Housing Bubble Blog” friends) who still has a bad feeling that we might be heading for something much worse?good_spockevil_spock It’s hard to tell; it seems that on odd days I live in a world where we have hit the bottom, the market is turning around and the recovery is a big V for Victory, and then on even days we are in the same sucker’s rally of that occurred in the Great Depression, just before the market tanked. And during the weekend I straddle both worlds, and am only able to tell whether I am in the evil world or not by checking to see if Spock has a goatee.

Anyway, here’s a scrapbook of articles that I’ve been assembling over the last year or two — and many of which are from just last week.

Just thought I’d share the misery…

Part I The Big Picture: collapse of the debt-inflation bubble still in progress

The Start of It All: Gigi showed me this 2007 Credit-Suisse report that ultimately prompted me to move my 401K money out of stocks and into cash just before the market crashed. I have to take this report seriously as it saved me hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement account. To this day my 401K remains in cash.

Page 47 of that report has this now-famous graph, which I have annotated for your convenience (click to expand):

credit_suisse_chart
If I read this report and graph correctly, so far we have only weathered the first “Katrina” storm of Subprime, and are only now entering the Rita of Alt-A and Option ARMs. Even Prime ARM’s should be considered at risk, given that many of those folks also lost their jobs this past year.

Some Wonky Econ Talk

Back in the old days, I always thought that “inflation” and “price increases” were synonymous. Eventually it was explained to me that “inflation” refers only to the increase in the money supply, either by literally printing dollars or extending credit to banks — which is pretty much the same thing. What the doom-sayers have been explaining lately is that even though prices have been fairly constant this past decade, we have actually undergone a huge inflation of the money supply through the extension of very cheap credit — made even cheaper by hiding or obscuring the true risk in bundled securitized packages. Now that these highly risky debts have all started to go sour, we really have no choice but allow all the bad debt to go away — and with it all of those dollars that were manufactured to back the loan in the first place.

In other words, the current crisis is a problem of too much bad money, and the only way to cure the problem is to make the money go away, which is to say Deflation. Another way to think about it is, all of the current bad debt (toxic assets as well as more bad news to come) are negative dollars, or “anti-dollars” in the current economy. And the reason that all of this new money being pumped into the economy by the stimulus package is not and will not result in price increases is that those new dollars are not chasing goods and services: they are being used to fill the holes created by the “anti dollars”. People aren’t going on spending sprees, they are saving, and paying down debt.

I read an item from McClatchy news recently about how Commercial Real Estate is considered the next threat. This is a real problem. It’s not so visible out here in Utah, but during our visit to Long Beach last week I saw a lot of empty buildings, including many that were old, long-time concerns, such as a lamp store on PCH that must have been there since the 50’s. With the current downturn, and nobody buying stuff, who is going to be leasing all these huge empty commercial properties in the next few years ?

So, this next economic storm could be a foreclosure Rita plus a Hurricane Camille.

Am I missing something?

Part II What US Recovery? What Inflation?
The Consumer Confidence index is holding steady at *negative* 216, meaning most people are still gloomy about present and future. (I know I am; how about you?) Most people are increasing their savings, and are reluctant to spend money, in an American economy which is based on domestic consumer activity, not export. Can you say “Paradox of Thrift” ?

Next: The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco issued a report earlier this year giving odds of 85% chance of Deflation in 2010.

The only prices I’ve seen edge up occasionally lately have been oil, but here is news of further downward pressure on oil. So I am very dubious. Who uses their car anymore, unless they have to? Most big companies that I know of (including mine) have been cutting way back on business travel, in favor of teleconferencing. As seen below, the big cargo ships are staying in port, so other than the Russian oligarchs with their new Hummers, who else is burning all this oil?

Part III: Deflation and/or Economic Contraction Worldwide

Sure doesn’t look like there is any other country in the world that going to be able to save our bacon, either. I ran a few google searches on the terms “inflation” and “deflation”, and paired each with a long list of countries. The bottom line is, there really aren’t too many countries that are seeing much inflation right now. Let’s go through a short version of this list, in no particular order:

Even Zimbabwe, which was going through a sextillion-percent hyperinflation, is no longer doing so. This is because they finally gave up on their own currency and (as of April of 2009) only use foreign currencies for exchange, such as US dollars. Somehow I don’t think that is really such a good thing, and it certainly doesn’t do us much good, as increased demand for dollars only increases their value and buying power (deflation).

International Trade

A while back Gigi directed my attention to this little-known but important thing called The Baltic Dry Index, which measures prices and demand for those large container ships used in international trade. It is considered a leading indicator of future global trends, and it remains down. Not much shipping going on across the sea in those big container ships, many of which are now parked and dormant in Singapore. Not much trade going on anywhere, worldwide.

Oh, well, at least we still have our health, right?

Other Threats to Recovery

More cheery news; H1N1: Could Flu Pandemic trigger deflation?

I really look forward to someone talking me out of this bad mood that I’m in. And I really, really look forward to being proved wrong in the coming year, and will be more than happy to say that I was wrong, and will buy you all a beer and clink glasses over what turned to be just me worrying a lot about nothing.

Here’s to the power of Hope. Ching-ching.

Farewell to Blueberries

The months of April, May and June have already passed and — writing now from the red-rock deserts of Utah — the lush green world of our life in the Connecticut woods has begun to fade from recent memory. Even our spring road trip down through Ohio, Kentucky, Texas, New Mexico and on up to Utah has become a blur which only comes back into focus after looking through our photo archives and journals.

I had so much I wanted to write about over those last few months, but life events and packing and the economy and all that seemed to steal away the moments in the morning when I would be able to just to sit down gather my thoughts and photo albums and make sense of the things, in a form fit for public consumption.

cherry_blossom_jefferson.JPGThere was the trip to Washington DC, where Gigi finally got to overdose on history and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. The day trip out to West Cornwall in search of the old Colonial house that the humorist James Thurber lived in during his later years. The weekend in Greenwich Village, attending a three-day “cheese bootcamp” at Murray’s Cheese Shop. The final melting of snow, the explosion of flowers everywhere, the return of the rabbits and chipmunks, the journey up through New Hampshire to the land of “Foxbridge” where my novel takes place. and so much more.

journal.JPGWhen we first arrived in South Glastonbury, Connecticut I started a journal and over the next ten months, no matter what else was going on, I almost always took the time to put in an entry, however long or short, recording the date, the temperature, expected weather, and whatever events I cared to note from the preceding day. In lieu of any other tributes, here are the entries from the last week of that journal:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Sunny, Cold 38 degrees. Sun expected all Day.

Last minute things to do. Going to the Peabody Museum one last time so Gigi can look at the exhibit of “sacred stones” used in ancient Judaic traditions. One last pizza night, fill up the bird feeder on last time, visit with our friends Rich and Amy. Replace a few things we have broken.

Have I learned anything while I was here? We shall see. My eyes and ears were open, perhaps more often than in my California days, when the main goal was to shut things out with sunglasses and headphones.

The seasons have their own character, at times subtle in their changes, while at other times abrupt, with morning Summertime sun followed with an afternoon blizzard, and a Ginkgo tree that dropped its leaves in an hour-long shower. We arrived here in the deep green of summer, and now leave in the prima vera of Spring. Everything is a circle.

mouse_cove.JPGThe old Mr. Rose, who owned the berry farm, died while we were here, and his son is running the place for now. The farmer died, but the farm continues. A mouse died on my watch, but the rivers still flow by the cove where he now rests.

This year has been variations on a theme of Solitude, punctuated by occasional ventures into the town-village, or the visits by out-of-towners, or invasions by flocks of wild turkeys.

I’ve learned that I could live like this, and that we have enough within ourselves to keep amused and busy. And so we shall, somewhere.

It has been a magic year. The world is filled with wonders.

Thursday, May 14, 2009
Cloudy, Cool 55 degrees. Thunderstorms later.

The farming machinery was running late yesterday. To be a farmer, it seems it has to be your life. There is no such thing as “after work,” or extra-curricular activity.

Long list of things to do before we go. Must keep my promise to donate to the Mark Twain House. I would like to think that upon my departure, Connecticut was left in slightly better shape than it was on my arrival.

I for one am certainly better off for the stay.

Friday, May 15, 2009
Cloudy, cool 61 degrees. More clouds later

This journal, like our stay here in Connecticut, is drawing to a close. Feeling a sense of regret, of things left undone, as at the end of one’s life when there is still so much left to do. A life well-lived, it seems, always ends in mid-sentence.

pear_blossom.JPGBut have we learned nothing from our stay here, in the woods, next to a blueberry farm where the Starlings are due back any day, and the ten o’clock rabbit now has young apprentices in tow?

The seasons teach us that everything in life is a circle, and that every end a beginning, every death an illusion, if you do not also see the life that follows, as Winter never fails to turn into Spring.

Sunday, May 17, 2009
Cloudy, cool 55 degrees.

The chipmunks are back. Good to see them running about before we go.

chipmunk.JPGWent down to the Peabody Museum yesterday and while down there realized that we had not yet made it over to the Gillette Castle, formerly owned by a stage actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, and who first used the line “Elementary, my dear fellow”.

We went through the woods to get there, stopping at the town of Chester and taking a ferry boat ride across the Connecticut river. Worth the trip.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Sunny, Cold 34 degrees. Warmer later

Almost finished packing. Once again we are living out of suitcases. Once again a long road is our future, our next home beyond the horizon, and across the Great Divide. Oblivious to all of this metaphor, the two squirrels chase each other around and around the base of the Ginkgo tree outside, the ten o’clock rabbit prepares for his morning shift, and now there is a new bird in the trees — could it be a hatchling? — with a curious dolphin-like squeal.

The last frost of winter takes a nip at our heels this morning, perhaps to send us on our way. Or, perhaps, a gentle reminder from winter that the world-in-time is a circle, and that someday soon, it will be back.

Thursday, May 21 2009
Sunny, Warm 68 degrees. Hot later

robin_eggs.JPGA robin has set up a nest on the front porch wreath. One blue egg fell out, but there are three more for the birds to attend.

The movers have come and gone and our car is packed. Within the hour we too will be gone.

Farewell, Blueberry Lane. Farewell, Connecticut. You were not always kind to us, perhaps, but you and your birds and your seasons and your people were cut from whole cloth of an honest weave seldom now seen, an experience worthwhile and not soon forgotten.

And for all of that, I thank you.

gigi_niles_ct_bridge.JPG

The Full Moon and Darwin

moonlight2.JPG(A bit late, but here is an old posting from Connecticut, in early February of this year…)

There was a full moon a few nights ago, and the snow in our backyard late that night glowed in a way that was almost phosphorescent, and formed haunting shadows of trees on the smooth white surface.

The latest theories say that the stuff of the moon was once the outer crust of the early earth, but was blasted off by a massive collision with another planet the size of Mars. Less than a billion years later life began on earth, and from that time on has survived hundreds of other catastrophic collisions, the most recent big ones being a ten-mile wide asteroid around 250 million years ago, which blasted out a crater almost 300 miles wide and wiped out 90 percent of all life on earth, and then a much much smaller one about 60 million years ago which killed off most of the dinosaurs and other land-based creatures on earth…

…with the exception of a few little shrew-like mammals that later sprung back and evolved, so Darwin says, into dogs, cats, lemurs… and human beings. That of course was not the end of the story. For example, the people of the Clovis culture lived here in North America just 12 thousand years ago but were suddenly wiped out, along with woolly mammoths and other creatures, all at once. A strange layer of burned ground found in Clovis-related sites makes many researchers proposes that a huge cluster of comets hit the atmosphere and set the entire northern continent on fire, and everyone on it. And yet a few survived…

There really is no more debate about evolution among serious scientists. Evolution is not merely one of several competing alternative “theories”. Darwin’s essential hypothesis about the origin of new species is not only supported by its ability to explain observations, but (as the true test of a scientific theory) has also made predictions — predictions which alternative hypotheses would not have been able to make — and these predictions were later verified. This is an interesting fact that I only learned recently while Gigi and I were once again out at the Yale Peabody Museum. In the section on early man, there were some letters between Darwin and some paleoanthropologists, about some recent fossils of man-like ape creatures found in northern America. If the theory of evolution were true, they concluded, the migration patterns of humans would lead one to predict that they should find ape-like fossils much closer and more similar to humans near where all major migrations appear to have begun: in Africa.

Much later, these predictions were proved correct, as were many others, such as the thousands of long-dead “missing links”, that evolution predicted would be found between hundreds of similar species still alive today.

I guess the point of all this is that by comparison with 10 mile wide asteroid collisions, the little economic downturn we are facing in the current microsecond of geological time is very unlikely to have a lasting impact. We will learn, adapt (or be replaced). Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this year, was right. As the character Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldbloom) said in the movie Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”

The Month of March, Leonine and Ovine

March roars in like a lion, and out like a lamb.

In Los Angeles, the month of March is distinguished from the other months of the year by the sudden and unexplained appearance of chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps in grocery stores. Rabbits and Chickens. That’s about it. Lions and lambs remained exotic creatures that lived in Africa and the Scottish highlands, or in the latter case sometimes grilled and served with couscous at Moroccan restaurants.

The Lion in Winter

feb_farm.JPGThat said, let’s talk about where we live now. On the last day of February we were in the middle of what we had been warned was a “false spring”. Sure felt like spring to me; so much so that for the first time in over two months I had no qualms about going out for a walk through the farm without a jacket and three layers of insulation (and, for that matter, snow shoes). gigi_house.JPG I’d been trying to collect pictures of the same locations in different times of the year so I brought my camera to get some shots of the farmland, and this picture here of Gigi contemplating the view of the house from the creek. We didn’t need our waterproof boots as all the snow had long ago melted, and though the sky was partly cloudy the ground was warm and dry.

march_farm_day1.JPGThe first day of March had been predicted to involve a sudden change, which took the form of a blizzard. A cold front had moved down from Canada, and the acoustics of this area are such that the wind literally roared through the trees; it was loud enough that you could hear the wind coming from miles away, as it rolled up and over the hills.

march_fireplace.JPGAfter three months of sub-freezing temperatures I was just now starting to get the hang of building fires in the (closed) fireplace. The owners had about half a cord of firewood behind the shed, and about once a week when the snow had cleared a bit we went out with a wheel-barrow to haul some of the logs to the covered front porch, where they could dry out before we pull them in to the house. We had tried using the little fire-starter bricks and followed their directions for stacking the logs, but it never worked too well. Later we tried priming the system with a “Presto” log but after a few days of that we started developing a smokers cough. Finally I remembered something that Frank Lloyd Wright used to do based on his theory that logs, like trees, burn better in their natural position — which is vertical. I arranged three logs in a tripod formation and put a starter beneath them. Whoosh. Guess I should have stuck it out in Boy Scouts just a bit longer to get past Tenderfoot.

snow_house.JPGThe next day the wind passed and the air went still, and the snow once again began to fall. First in small flakes and fast-falling rain, but within the hour the air had cooled further and the march_picnic.JPGsnow was now in large fluffy dandelion formations that glided down slow but piled up fast. I went out to get a few shots but didn’t have much time as there was more snow on the way. The birds left their mark on the picnic table and scrambled to peck out more birdseed before flying back into the spruce trees and brush for shelter.

march_farm.JPG By the end of the second day over a foot of snow had fallen, and once again our picnic table out back had a pure white six-foot long twinkie sitting on top of it. cardinal_snow.JPGHad to put on my jacket again, along with waterproof boots, and the snow shoes, and the thick gloves, and went out get a few more shots of the same area. The snow surrounding the bird feeder was a popular spot, and was quickly trampled down by all the birds looking for food, such as one of our two cardinals and a dark eyed junko, shown here.

The Ides of March: Robins

march_robin2.JPGThe snow did not last long. By the end of the first week it had almost completely melted, by which time robins had begun to appear. I never realized until watching a few of these red birds stalk each other that the old song about the red red robin was based on the bird’s behavior. Their staccato walk consists of a set of three or four steps, after which they stop and perk their heads up, sometimes tilting them slightly as if listening for worms before — bobbing — back down again. The iBird app on my iPhone informs me that their song really is described as “cheer up, cheer up”. Onomatopoetic.

Going Gently

Meanwhile,march_daffodils.JPG the garden — which for the last two months had been dead and covered in a white varnish of snow — had begun to show signs of life in the form of narrow green shoots, that came up through the snow so fast that they pierced some of the old maple leaves left over from the Fall. By the end of the month the shoots were in full bloom, in the form of yellow and white daffodils as well as tiny purple flowers that appeared to be some form of tulip.

Now it is April and we haven’t seen birds at the bird feeder for days. Gigi thinks that they have found better food elsewhere, but I wondering if perhaps they haven’t begun nesting or found some other season-appropriate … activities. Indeed, we finally spotted a dozen or more of the tiny chickadees and titmice under a large sheltering bush by the side of the house. Some of the birds had grown quite fat (or more likely “with egg”) and looked to be settling in among the underbrush for a nice long hatch. Even the cardinal and some of the robins would disappear into the dark bush every now and then, making the bush seem more like a nightclub than a breeding ground (to which some may argue, what’s the difference?)

High Wire Squirrels

march_birdhouse1.JPGThe squirrels spent much of the month honing their high-wire acts, in the form of their repeated assaults upon the bird feeder. Fortunately, the small bird house that hangs between the feeder and the tree was unoccupied. Since that time I have reinforced the bird house hanger so that it can at least sustain the full weight of an adult but clumsy squirrel, from a drop of eight inches. Not too long after that a song wren began to take interest in the new safety features of the little house, seen here inspecting the property under the watchful gaze of a small downy woodpecker.

In any case, here below you may see a video, capturing for the record the event that prompted me to improve the bird house infrastructure:

[youtube]0%788z5lz2%2d_M[/youtube]

The Great Backyard Birdcount

canadian_goose_icon.jpghad been reluctant to put any food in the cylindrical birdfeeder out in our backyard. The owners had hung it on a wire between the Ginkgo tree and a Sugar Maple, along with a couple of little bird houses. Someone had said that in the wintertime bears were attracted to feeders so you didn’t want to put anything in them until after March. As noted before, it appears that bears don’t come much to this side of the river, so I finally decided that those poor birds needed some food and went down a week ago to Gardiner’s Market and bought a bag of birdseed, along with some other stuff. I of course forgot about the bag of birdseed and came home with everything but the birdseed. A big snowstorm had made the roads difficult to drive in the meantime, so I didn’t go back for it. Gigi went down to the store a few days later and got some more seed.

Right around that time the Audubon Society announced their annual Great Backyard Birdcount from February 14-16, so that seemed like a good opportunity for me to try my hand at birding. As an Angeleno my knowledge of birds went only as far as the local varieties in Long Beach, which included pigeons, crows, and the sea gulls which hover motionless in the air above the bluffs across the street. Not much else. My brother-in-law Tim had been sending out links to all the nifty apps that now run on our iPhones, so I had been checking some of them out on the Apple App Store. ibird.JPGOne of them is an app called iBird, which is a pretty cool little Audubon trail guide for the iPhone, but much more friendly. If you’re trying to identify some bird, you can put in what you know, such as its size, color (tough for me), geographic location, beak shape etc and it will give you a list (with photos) of the birds matching your description. Once you’ve found your bird, you can click on a button and your phone will start chirping like that particular bird. This apparently sometimes attracts the attention of that species of birds, who may start coming closer to you to see where the other bird is.

Bird Detective

For the Great Backyard Birdcount, the rules were that your report had to be for a specific amount of time (say, 15 minutes to a few hours), and you had to try to identify and count all the birds you saw in a specific place. So, I started around 10 in the morning on Monday, and armed with a camera and iBird, tried to see how many birds of various stripes I could identify and count. If there were any birds I couldn’t identify, I couldn’t count them. Here’s what I saw:

northcardinalplusdetail.jpgThe only bird that I was able to pick out by sight was the Northern Cardinal, seen here and also at right, with two other grayish birds that I could not at the time identify (but stay tuned). There are two cardinals that hang out around our backyard in the Spruce tree near the feeder, and looked just like the ones I remember as a kid in Kentucky. northcardinalplus2.jpg I vaguely recall having a plastic model of a Cardinal that we had to glue together and paint (like a model airplane). The birds were so red they didn’t look real. More cartoon like than anything. With that black mask they always look a bit angry about something. I don’t know why.

/blackcappedchickadee_detail.jpgThe first bird that I was able to identify with the iBird app was this little guy, the Black Capped Chickadee./blackcappedchickadee3.jpg It was pretty distinctive, and with that black cap on its head it didn’t look like much else in the iBird guide. One thing that helped identify a lot of the birds was the wire grid on the bird-feeder whose squares were about an inch on a side, making size estimates pretty easy.

tuftedtitmouse_detail.jpgA lot of these little birds seem to stick together, and so this other mini-bird, the Tufted Titmouse, was often seen with his buddies hanging out in the same group at the feeder. tuftedtitmouse.jpgThe only way I was able to get a good count was by taking a photograph, as they all kept hopping around trading places, which made it hard to keep track. The iBird app has about 900 North American birds in its database, so to narrow it down I put in that this was a small bird (3-5 inches) with a sort of ruffled topknot on its head and a small beak.

dove_detail.jpgThe Mourning Dove was not too hard to identify either. I was pretty sure it was a dove rather than a Rock Pigeon. Getrude Stein never had much to say about doves. Not even “Alas.” They are a thing with feathers as E. Dickinson would say, but they don’t look very hopeful. I guess mourning does that to a bird. Too bad its not a morning dove. What a difference a “U” makes.

downywoodpecker_detail.jpgThe first four birds were relatively easy, but after that things started getting harder. I knew that this bird was some sort of woodpecker, for example, and had seen it and its companion high up in the trees pecking away since the early fall. With the iBird program I was able to narrow the candidates down to a couple of species, which were the Downy Woodpecker, and the Hairy Woodpecker. At this point however, I was stuck, as the pictures of the two species look virtually identical, with the same red band on the back of their heads, and the same lightning-bolt white stripes on the back. downywoodpecker.jpgAnd this was where I started learning a few things about why evolution is such a tricky subject. It turns out that these two species, even though they look like twins, are not genetically related at all (other than being birds). They are, the scientists say, an example of “Convergent Evolution”, in which two completely different species, arriving in the same geographic area, begin to find advantage in looking a lot like each other. The Viceroy butterfly is one such example, which though completely edible to nearby predators, evolved to look just like the poisonous Monarch butterfly. So far as I know, both of these woodpeckers are edible. To make a long story short, once again the one-inch grid on the bird feeder settled the issue, as our bird is clearly no more than four inches long, but the mature Hairy Woodpecker is a “medium” size bird, about 6-8 inches in length. This little Downy Woodpecker we’ve got is also a bit more fuzzy than hairy.

bluejay_detail.jpgI guess in retrospect this bird should have been a lot easier, but it just points out how much my colorblindness screws things up. I had been searching through the iBird program for some bird that looked a lot like a woodpecker (with its long pointy beak), but which was gray in color, with some dark and white bars on the back. Nothing was coming up that looked at all like this bird.bluejay02.jpgFor some reason I had always thought that Blue Jays were a lot more bluish than this (bringing to mind the old line from “Yellow Submarine”, said by one of the Blue Meanies: “funny, you don’t look bluish”). The blue jay in the iBird program looked very blue. Something told me that this thing was a Jay of some sort, and after digging around on the internet I found some pictures of bluejays that matched my bird. Gigi later confirmed that the bird was definitely blue-gray. Still looks gray to me, except for those little squares on the back.

dark_eyed_junco.jpgThese last two birds were driving me crazy, because I couldn’t find anything like them in iBird, and they were the most numerous of the birds. I guess the problem is that they were so generic looking, just little fat birds with small beaks, one a kind of slate color, the other a vague brownish color with stripes. I had completely given up on identifying them and had already gone online to the Great Backyard Birdcount website to submit my final counts, when the form came up asking me to put in how many of each species I had found. song_sparrow.jpg The forms are tailored to the geographic area, and the form that I was given online was for birds in Connecticut. Each line of the form had the name of a bird, which was a link to a popup photo of that bird. Just out of curiosity I starting clicking on each one, and didn’t get too far through the “Sparrow-like” section of birds before I hit both of my mystery birds. The first one was the (slate colored) Dark-eyed Junco, and the other (to the right) was the Song Sparrow. Finally it all made sense. The two birds that sat next to the Northern Cardinal were also slightly larger dark-eyed juncos. Done! Shrink wrap and ship it!

The Final Count
Anyway, for the record, here is the final tally that I submitted to the Great Backyard Birdcount, for today:

Location: South Glastonbury, Connecticut
Starting Timee: 10:00 am, February 16, 2009
Total Birding Time: 2 hours
Estimated Birding Skill: Fair
Snow on the Ground: Less Than 2 inches

  • 6 Mourning Doves
  • 2 Downy Woodpeckers
  • 2 Blue Jays
  • 10 Black-capped Chickadees
  • 6 Tufted Titmouses (Titmice ?)
  • 3 Song Sparrows
  • 12 Dark-eyed Juncos (Slate-colored)
  • 2 Northern Cardinals

canadian_geese.jpgTo which, I might add, zero Swans a Swimming, zero Geese a Laying, and zero Golden Ring-Necked Pheasants (which as you all know, is the bird they are talking about in the song when they sing “Five Golden Rings” — the first 7 days are all birds). A few weeks ago, however, I did observe a whole gaggle of Canadian Geese, out along the trail in the Rose’s Berry Farm, and which you can see here and at the beginning of this article. But they weren’t a-laying anything. They just sat there a-honking.

The Zen Squirrels of October

zen_squirrel.JPGThe white lacquered snow has still not melted from the ground in our back yard since New Years, so this seemed like as good a time as any to reprise some of the more strange memories from the anything-but-white days of Fall.

This squirrel at left was staring at Gigi from the Ginkgo leaf covered picnic table for some time before Gigi realized that it wasn’t really staring at her. In fact, it seemed to be completely zoned out, as if it was trying to remember where it left its car keys, or the name of the girl it took to the senior prom. The only clue that the movie (below) is a video and not a photo is the movement of the leaves behind the squirrel. Gigi notes somewhat tactlessly that the squirrels had gotten pretty fat lately. My own theory is that they were getting ready to hibernate, and when one of them puts on enough weight it goes into temporary “hibernate” mode, like a computer laptop. Eventually it snaps out of it and goes on its way.

Which raises the interesting existential question of what is the more absurd: a squirrel staring off into space for no reason, or two human beings watching a squirrel stare off into space for no reason, for no reason.

In any case, here is the YouTube video (it zooms in on the critter after a bit):

[youtube]nd7Z3mqKQRk[/youtube]

The Shape of Water

Spent about half the day on Sunday digging out from the most recent snowstorm, armed with snow shovels, ice blowers, salt and gravel. So, I had a lot of time to think about snow, ice and water in its various forms.

december02_s.jpgIt took a while for the ingredients of water to appear on the scene in this floating world. The protons that go into making the “core” of Hydrogen appeared first, about a millionth of a second after the start of the Big Bang, when the soup of quarks had cooled enough to congeal into protons (don’t you hate it when your quark soup does that?). It took another four hundred thousand years for the protons to combine with electrons, which orbit around them to form the tiny little solar system we call a Hydrogen atom.

The other ingredient in water, Oxygen, was a lot more tricky. You have to pack eight protons together closely to make the core of Oxygen, and protons hate to get close to each other (I think Bohr called it the “proton cootie” effect). The universe had to cool down enough for all the light elements to condense into stars, dense enough that the protons were crushed together in nuclear fusion, causing the stars to light up as they formed heavier elements such as Oxygen. Altogether, that whole process took another couple million years.

water_molecule_dimensions.pngFrom there, the recipe for making water is fairly simple: combine two Hydrogen atoms with an atom of Oxygen and light a match. After your singed eyebrows grow back you will have a molecule of water, H20.

At room temperature on earth, water is liquid, but once it gets cold enough, it becomes solid and forms ice. Depending on how cold it is, how humid, and what the air pressure is, the ice will take on different shapes. There are sixteen known kinds of ice, but most are very rare around here, and only appear in odd places such as Mars or one of Saturn’s moons. 800px-cryst_struct_ice.pngThe most common ice on earth is called hexagonal Ice One, so called because the water molecules all line up in a nice six-sided honeycomb shaped array. I had always assumed that this was old knowledge, but was surprised to learn that the structure of common ice was not understood until Linus Pauling (famous for promoting Vitamin C, and almost beating Watson & Crick to the discovery of the DNA double helix) figured out its shape back in 1935. He had to use the brand new theory of quantum mechanics to do it, so I guess ice is a lot more tricky stuff than I thought.

(Incidentally, fans of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s book Cats Cradle will be interested to learn that there really is an Ice Nine. When he wrote the book there were only seven known. Fortunately for us, the real Ice IX does not have a freezing point above room temperature. So it goes.)

ct_snowflake_mosaic.jpgAnyway, it’s from those six-sided hexagons in the ice crystals that snowflakes get their pretty, unique shape, such as the ones that I was able to capture in the photos here at left. The general way that snowflakes form is understood, but there are some things about the perfect symmetry of many snowflakes that scientists still cannot completely explain. The main character in my novel won a prize (in the story) for his solution to the question of why snowflakes are so symmetrical… but you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is.

frost02.jpgEven if the ice crystals are not free-floating but stuck on something, the same processes that make snowflakes form the fern-like branches of frost on our bedroom window.

snow_on_plant.jpgThe ice crystals in snow act like little prisms that reflect and scatter all the the light that goes through them, so that if enough of the stuff piles up on the ground, the only color you see is — white. On a clear day the shadows of the snow appear blue, because they are reflecting the only light that hits them directly, which is the blue of the sky.

picnic_table_snow.jpgAs you may recall, the first big snowstorm of the season hit us on the day before my birthday, December 20th. Over nine inches of snow fell altogether, and by the time we came out that morning the backyard and surrounding countryside was completely covered in what looked like smooth marshmallow creme…

tracks_02.jpg…except for the tracks. It was really interesting to play detective and try to sort out what animals had been wandering or hopping around our backyard the night before, where they came from and where they went. In this picture, to the far right the tracks of our “ten o’clock rabbit” can be seen. The rabbit is traveling towards the camera. The tracks of a rabbit hopping along at a modest clip is, I’ve learned, usually shaped in the form of the letter ‘Y’. The bottom of the Y is formed by the rabbit’s two front paws coming down for a landing, one in front of the other. The rabbit’s bigger hind legs then land slightly in front of the two prints, side-by-side.

In the middle a squirrel was hopping away from the camera, crossing over the rabbit’s tracks. Squirrel tracks look like the letter ‘W’, because the squirrel puts his small front paws side-by-side, then his hind quarters land just past. To the far left a dog or a coyote was following along, possibly after the rabbit. We’ve seen more rabbit tracks since this photo was taken, so I’m pretty sure the ten o’clock rabbit is still on schedule and hasn’t been eaten.

river_ice.jpgEventually, as the temperature began to drop, the creek has started to freeze, forming plates out from the rocks and boulders in the water. A few snowflakes fell on the plates of ice, and they grew into these large white starfish crystals. They must have been a couple of inches wide. spruce_cone_ice.jpgSome other plates of ice had formed in the front yard, capturing in the process some of the little spruce pine cones and needles. Gigi spotted this one sample.

icicles.jpgSome of the forms that water takes are no mystery. The icicles coming down from the roof, for example, just form when the snow on the roof, warmed by the inside air, melt and trickle down to the edge, freezing again in the cold night air.

roman_numerals.jpgSome of these other features, however, took some guess work. I came down one morning to see what appeared to be roman numerals embedded in the snow. The mystery was resolved when I noticed that some of the icicles hanging from the roof had fallen into the snow at odd angles, carving out the figures you see here.

half_pipe_ice.jpgSome fierce wind kicked up a few days later, and at first I thought our windows were being pelted with hail, but after going outside later after the storm the snow was littered with ice in the shape of half pipes. That’s what happens when you live in Los Angeles all your life. People who grow up in cold climates probably know all about this stuff and have names for it, but I had no clue where the things came from. leaf_ice.jpg It took another large gust of wind for me to see that these were the shells of ice that formed on the branches of trees and leaves, sliding off only after the wind had bent and shaken the branches enough to liberate the half-pipes and leaf-shaped ice.

Here is another one of those little attention grabbers for you: an incredible amount of water has passed through your body, and then gone back into the atmosphere by sweat and — other means. That water gets churned around so much in the clouds that most of the water that has ever passed through you is completely mixed up by now with all the other water on the planet. So much so that, in each of those six little snowflakes I photographed above, when you do the math, on average each one of them has about a thousand molecules of water that were once inside of you.

Think about that some time. It’s deep.

If you turn the mathematics around the other way, it also means this: think about any famous person in history, Alexander the Great, Jesus, Buddha, Genghis Khan, Queen Nefertiti. According to the laws of probability, it is virtually certain that you now have within your own body, molecules of water that once coursed through the veins of each of these men and women. For millions of years, billions of humans have come and gone, leaving behind their water. And you have within you a few molecules from each of them, as well as uncounted numbers of lions, pterodactyls, and velociraptors, all life going all the way back to the beginning of the world, made from water and other elements formed by a long dead star that exploded in a supernova perhaps eight billion years ago.

coffee_mug_snow.jpgI started this little essay with a discussion of the big bang, and I leave you now with another picture of the same universe pictured before, in the coffee mug from which it came.

Ah, coffee. Remind me to talk about the shape of the caffeine molecule some day…

Winter

creek_bridge_snow.jpgThe snow began to fall early afternoon on the 19th, and did not let up until after midnight. Large fluffy flakes piled up at the rate of over an inch an hour, and the air was still and quiet.

snow_leaf.jpgBy the morning the backyard had lost all remaining signs of Fall. Only a few stray oak leaves that fell overnight punctuated the smooth white carpet that surrounded us.

winter_berries.jpgSomeone had told us that the reason the leaves fall is that they are pushed out by new growth underneath. I had always pictured Winter as a time of dormancy, when everything is asleep or dead. Everywhere you look, however, there are already signs of new life in the bud.

snow_bridge_house.jpg
All together more than a foot of snow fell over the next 24 hours. It’s funny how all the old holiday songs about snow and winter and mistletoe suddenly begin to make sense when you look out a window and the gentle cascade of snow envelops the world in a hushed peaceful whisper.

both_snowshoeing.jpgWe took the opportunity on my birthday to test out our new snowshoes. The old fashioned ones used to look like tennis rackets; these are very different, and are sort of metal frames with cross-beams into which you snap your boots. We snowshoed out into the Rose’s Berry farm out back of the property, and went over to check out how our Christmas tree was doing. We had it tagged back in October, and planned to cut it down just in time for the holidays. The view from the farmland looks like a classic Christmas card. Wish you could be here!

Snow Tubing
snow_tube.jpgAt some point we did begin to realize however that, just as the price of fall colors was the Rake, the price of all this winter wonderland was … snow blowers and snow shovels and wrestling bundles of wood in for the long winter’s night. The one upside of the hard physical labor was that we discovered an inflatable inner-tube sled in the garage (while searching for the extension cord for the snow-blower starter motor).

This has all been a lot of fun, but now its three days since the snow began to fall, and every muscle in my body is sore. No wonder folks around here are so thin. The seasons are pretty, but they’re a hell of a lot of work. Enjoy the videos!

Niles on the tube:
[youtube]PzH_hmq-UMs[/youtube]

Gigi leaps into action:
[youtube]2Mv75dtoneY[/youtube]

Like a turtle on its back:
[youtube]QVZ6sYoGdRs[/youtube]

Latitude and Longitude

google_house.jpgThe house we are renting on Blueberry Lane is located at 41°39’29.20″N latitude, 72°34’45.10″W longitude. If you are curious, you can see our house on Google Maps. When I was working at NASA-Jet Propulsion Labs, I hung out with a lot of mapping people, geographers and cartographers mostly, to whom Geography mattered. In this little note I’d like to explore that notion a bit.

latitude.jpgLatitude

When I was a kid I was never able to sort out which was which until one clever friend (let’s give him credit: Jim Conolly) suggested the mnemonic “latitude is flatitude”. So, the latitude lines run horizontally, east-west, and represent how close you are to the equator (at 0 degrees), or the poles (at 90 degrees) respectively. For sailors, this was alway the easy one to figure out when you were lost at sea, because the further north you were, the lower the noontime Sun sat over the horizon. At nighttime, you could “shoot the stars” with a sextant and measure how high Orion or Polaris or some other star rose in the sky. Our current latitude is 41°39’29.20″N, the N meaning North of the equator.

That’s pretty darn far north. It puts us almost halfway between the Tropic of Cancer (below which the noontime Sun will appear straight overhead) and the Arctic circle (above which the noontime sun may not even come above the horizon). I wasn’t quite sure how North that really was though, until I got out a map and checked to see where I would be at that latitude if I were over in California. It turns out that would be around Yreka, which is about seventy miles north of Redding (where my older brother Keith and his wife Cindy reside), and just 30 minutes away from the Oregon border.

What does all this mean in daily life? Mostly, its about daylight and how much of it you get. If you were down at the equator, for example, no matter what season, the sun is up for about 12 hours a day and usually goes somewhere straight overhead. At the poles, on the other hand, during the winter the sun doesn’t come up at all, while during the summer it may stay up 24/7, and simply circle around you, just above the horizon like an hour hand. In our case, deep in November, it means when I get up at 5:45am to make coffee, I am feeling my way through pitch black. The sun finally comes up around 7, but by 3pm it is already twilight. When we lived out in Los Angeles, Gigi and I would go for a walk every day, along the beach, in bright sunlight. Up here, we still go for walks through the trails in the backwoods and farmland, but broad sunlight? Not so much. I’m thinking of taking vitamin D supplements just to make up for what my skin would otherwise produce.

Longitudelongitude.jpg

Longitude is all about clock-time. While even the ancient Greeks knew how to determine latitude, the problem of reliably finding your longitude was not solved until recently, when really accurate clocks could be made. The real problem was, unlike latitude, one longitude line (meridian) was just like any other. There was nothing you could look at in the sky to tell you your longitude. So, they had to just arbitrarily pick one (which happened to pass through an observatory in Greenwich, England), and then measure all the other ones with respect to that one, which is called the Prime Meridan.

Not everybody agreed on where “Zero” longitude should be. The French, for example, did not think that Greenwich England was a suitable location, and so they (of course) chose a place near Paris for their “Zero.” This had some serious consequences back when they began building the “Chunnel” tunnel underneath the English Channel, linking England up to France. Each side began digging their end of the tunnel from their coastline towards the other, and had agreed beforehand where (in latitude/longitude) they would meet in the middle of the channel. A few years past, and as the two digging projects began to approach they realized that they were off by about 5 feet in the east-west direction. Apparently the French used the Paris-based longitude system, which they only now discovered did not agree with the British one. Fortunately, they were able to “jog” their tunnels a bit at the end so they joined up.

Our longitude is 72°34’45.10″W, the W meaning West of Greenwich. Our old house in Long Beach was at 118°W, three time zones away. This means that when I come downstairs and sit t my computer at 8am, it is still 5am in California. And that in turn means I have about two hours when I can work on my writing, noodle around on Yahoo or Google, and have breakfast before anyone even thinks about showing up at the L.A. Office. Typically, I start work at 10am EST (Eastern Time), and work until 6pm EST, which is around 3pm on the west coast. Of course, due to the effect of latitude, the sun has already been down for over an hour, and so I end my work day with pitch blackness outside my window. To get some walking done, Gigi and I usually try to get out around 3pm, which works out well for the L.A folks, because it is lunchtime there.

Latitude and Longitude. Just numbers. Numbers that pin your life down on the fragile surface of a blue marble spinning in an elliptical orbit at 18 miles a second around a small yellow star in the minor arm of a barred spiral galaxy that completes just one rotation every 250,000 years around a black hole with a mass of a hundred thousand suns, the whole nebulous pinwheel hurtling towards an unavoidable collision in two billion years with the Andromeda galaxy. Numbers that tell you when to get up in the morning, when you should go out for a walk with your wife through the backwoods, and how much snow will be on the ground when you look through the frosted windows of a New England house as you sip on spiced apple cider on Christmas morning.

The Greatest Gift

Here is a Riddle:

Question: What is the one thing that even the gods fear?
Answer: To be forgotten.


Journal Entry, Saturday November 8, 2008

Cloudy, 59 degrees, more rain expected later

12:45pm: Gigi and I were getting ready to go for a walk when I went out to the garage and noticed a mouse, clinging to the automatic garage door that rolls up into the top of the garage. At first I thought it was just climbing, but when I got closer saw that it was actually caught, its left arm crushed between the folding panels of the garage door. It must have gotten caught the night before, when we came back from dinner.

I was able to free the mouse from the door, but its arm was completely useless. It squeaked a couple of times when I lowered it to the ground and it tried to hobble off slowly towards some leaves, but I didn’t think that it would live long and it was obviously suffering. A rain-storm was coming this afternoon and I couldn’t bear the thought of it going through its last hours in the downpour.

I don’t know what to do.

Gigi and I talked about it. I couldn’t stand seeing it suffer, and thought about putting it out of its misery quickly, with a hoe or a shovel, but Gigi thought that would be cruel and suggested drowning it — which from what I’ve heard is an unpleasant way to die and seemed even more cruel. As I speak, we have put the mouse on a rag-blanket, in a small cardboard box, with some bits of cheese nearby for him to nibble on. But I am still at a loss. Are we doing the mouse any favors by giving it food, which could only serve to prolong its life and therefore its suffering? Which is the greater kindness?

No doubt if I were a farmer or a hunter I would have no qualms about dispatching the mouse and wouldn’t think twice about it again. Until today, the mouse and I had separate destinies, but now I have no choice but to think about what future the mouse will have. Either we

  1. somehow take it to a vet and then nurse it back to health, minus one arm, and keep it warm and safe and fed in a cage with water and cheese and peanut butter.
  2. take it out to the forest and set it free to find its own destiny — which we will then never know and always wonder about
  3. keep it comfortable for whatever time it has left, or
  4. kill it, mercifully

What would the mouse want?

3:00pm, same day: The mouse was still alive as of two hours ago. At that time I put the box with the mouse in it in the garage. I started the engine of our car, left the engine running, then closed the garage door. Carbon Monoxide is supposed to make you fall asleep, and then never wake up. A half hour later I came back out and turned off the engine, but left the door closed with all the exhaust in it. Will check on the mouse later.

4:06pm, same day: The mouse is still alive. When I opened the door and looked in the box, he stirred. Oh God, little mouse, why do you cling to your life so fiercely? Feeling remorse. He was already victimized once by the modern machinery of civilization, and now here I’ve gone and subjected him to toxic fumes, and yet he still lives. I was trying to be merciful, but was too stupid to have read about how modern automobiles, with their catalytic converters, produce almost no Carbon Monoxide anymore. So all I succeeded in doing was the make the air around him a bit more unpleasant. I let the air clear out, closed the garage door, and went back inside.

Tried without success to not think about him, the rest of the evening.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunny, cool 52 degrees. Sunny all day.

Eating oatmeal for breakfast. Have not gone out yet to check on the little mouse. We have done our best to keep him comfortable. The rain fell hard last night and I consoled myself that at least he was in a warm dry place. I don’t want him to suffer. How is it possible that such a tiny little thing could bring my entire world to a standstill?

10:06am, same day: I went out to the garage after breakfast. The mouse must have passed away some time during the night. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be at peace. I said a few buddhist prayers for the repose of his life, wishing him all the best for the next, and thanking him for this lesson in life.

Strange all the things you think about. To get through life, it seems, you must be able to hold seemingly contradictory facts about the world in your heart as true, in spite of the contradiction. They always seem to come in pairs, one of which is

  1. Nobody should ever die alone, and
  2. In this world, we all die alone.

mouse_rock.jpg11:00am, same day: I took the mouse, still on his rag blanket in the box, down to the river in the forest next to the farm. I found a sunny spot near where the water cascades over the rocks. A peaceful place. I buried him near an oak tree by the cascade and put a rock marker on the grave. And so, life goes on. And Fall turns to Winter, which never fails to turn into Spring.

But this little mouse: he will be remembered.

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