Wednesday, February 14, 2018

SEEING THINGS – Meeting the Invisible Halfway

Seeing this grimy sawtooth snowbank this morning reminds me how many
things in this wondrous world we can “see” only because of their effects on
something else.

Upwelling, wave-dampening “fluke prints” evincing a whale swimming out of sight below the surface. The jostling of larger subatomic particles by otherwise invisible “ghost particles,” or neutrinos. Tiny puffs of air on one's face from bat wings deep inside a pitch-black cave.

And this, a mound of snow poked by the invisible rays of a quickening late-
winter sun.

Though there's surely more to life than meets the eye, what a miracle how much more of it we can behold if our seeing is generous enough to meet it halfway.

Friday, February 9, 2018

TELLING THE TRUTH – How to Outlast the Fake News Scourge

If a person claiming to tell the truth includes any reference to either God, the Bible or patriotism, chances are their convictions come not from fact, nor from any rational thought process, but from belief. Same goes for Allah, the Koran or Sharia Law, or any other religious or nationalistic reference.

Though I’m a great believer in the power of positive thinking, beliefs are not 

facts. Without any impartial standard of veracity, anyone’s beliefs are as valid 
as anyone else’s.

      These folks are more interested in the cer- 

      tainty of knowing than in learning anything 
      they don't already think they know.

Beware the tellers. These are the people about whose ideas, after you spend a couple of hours with them, you know a great deal, but who’ve not thought to ask a single question of you. These folks are more interested in the certainty of knowing than in learning anything they don’t already think they know.       

Anyone who’s absolutely cock-sure about everything they say is not to be trusted. Tune them out. (If such a person is your friend, you’d be doing them a great favor by letting them know you’ve done so.)

Be suspicious of generalizations. When someone issues any kind of blanket statement, whether in support of or opposition to your own beliefs, your first reaction—after conspicuously rolling your eyes—should be “How do you know that? Show me the facts.”

Don’t even listen to absolutes. The truth is hardly ever black and white, but various shades of gray. Depending on your point of view, the very same facts can be seen to support differing truths. This is because folks rarely have open enough minds to explore any more than the angles that support their beliefs.

(If someone’s open to acknowledging the imperfection of his/her “truth”—which an ideologue or inveterate liar won’t be—this shades-of-gray notion may be a good place to start a balanced, respectful discussion.)

Pathological liars tend to be bullies. When their version of the truth is challenged, they’ll often double down on the lie, repeating it, amplifying it, perhaps discrediting you for being either stupid or smart—they might call you “elite.” Liars in positions of power will routinely try to intimidate you if your calling them on their falsehoods threatens their agenda.

    It’s like coughing uncovered in a crowded 
    elevator and claiming it’s everyone else’s fault 
    for making you sick in the first place.

They'll often attempt to preemptively discredit your pushback. This is why the current U.S. reality-star president, as cover for his routine, reckless dishonesty, throws his “fake news” accusation out there virtually daily. It’s kind of like coughing uncovered in a crowded elevator and claiming it’s everyone else’s fault for making you sick—and obnoxious—in the first place.

Try to look between and through a person’s assertions to see exactly how loosely they’ve played with the truth in the past. If she or he is in the public eye, have they conducted themselves with decency, credibility and class? Or have they, their lawyers and their public relations shills spent an inordinate amount of time and money trying to put out the fires of their deceit?

If any of these is true, chances are very good this person knows no other way of communicating. There is little if any truth here.

Finally, when you wonder about someone’s honesty, follow the money. Anyone—especially a politician—who advocates for a position or policy that benefits him/herself and small numbers of her/his wealthy patrons at the expense of most others is not very likely to be interested in the truth. 

So, with all these caveats, what is one to believe?

We have only a couple of ways of determining whether one person’s “truth” is any more true than another’s. (None has anything to do with whether or not one agrees with the other unless there is a discussion based on verifiable facts.)

One touchstone of truth is science, which, though far from incorruptible, has a long, mostly honorable history of observing and measuring not what someone hopes or prays will happen, not what bolsters one’s existing beliefs or serves one’s personal interests, but what actually happens. We would not have gotten as far as we have in understanding how the universe works if science were not worth its salt.

If some blowhard refutes scientific consensus, hold their feet to the fire. Ask what other discipline they rely on for their facts—and prepare to laugh and walk away.

The other way of finding out what really happened—or what someone really said—is through one of the very pillars of our great democracy, a free and independent press.

        You might be tempted to say that the 

        ultimate guarantor of truth is having 
        actually witnessed the purported event 
        with your own eyes. But you’d be wrong.

Determining exactly what is free and independent is getting difficult these days. During the past couple of decades journalism’s fringe elements have mutated into monsters of misinformation, deliberately spewing whatever their political base wants to hear. In those circles there is no longer the slightest shred of journalistic integrity—no attempt to independently corroborate assertions or purported quotes; no impartial oversight by editors, no professional discipline, no accountability.

But there are ways to more or less verify what a reporter or news medium says happened. Google it; see if there are other sources—including some you know to be relatively unbiased—reporting the same thing.

Check out one of the reputable fact-checking sites like PolitiFact, Snopes or Fact Check.  These and a few others have proven they have no axe to grind.

You can also refer to this wonderful graphic mapping dozens of media by both their political leanings and the rigor of their reporting practices: MEDIA BIAS CHART.  I now temper my trust of most news reports with a glance at this chart.

You might be tempted to say that the ultimate guarantor of truth is personal observation, having actually witnessed the purported event with your own eyes. But you’d be wrong.

Countless studies have shown that even direct real-life observation is fraught with errors—of both commission and omission. As much as we may think that seeing is believing, the fact is that quite often the opposite is true; human beings have a strong tendency to see what they want to see. In other words, what their beliefs suggest they should see.

And this takes us full circle, back to my initial suggestion that, if a person can’t convince you of their truth without referring to their higher power, some unassailable allegiance or other requisite of blind loyalty, that may be the only clue you’ll need to tell the difference between opinion and fact.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

THAT ZINKING FEELING – My Losing Battle To Avoid The Creeping Crud

Like just about everyone I know, I’ve been under the thumb of some crazy sinus/respiratory bug the past couple of weeks. Some, I hear, have been there for a couple of months.

I don’t know if it’s simply a cold or some other, much tougher virus. Either way, I’d been living in deathly fear of catching it. Because every time I’ve done so in the past six years or so, it’s turned into full-blown, chest-rending bronchitis. Those repeated assaults have permanently damaged my bronchia.

So in late December, knowing I’d be spending Christmas in Boston with a couple of prolific little carriers—not to mention flying back and forth in a veritable flying sick ward of sneezers and hackers—l bolster my defenses as never before.

I wash my hands every time I’m within walking distance of soap and water. I carry a little bottle of Purell in a holster on my belt. I hydrate like it’s going out of style. I even wear a serious N-95 surgical respirator while on the plane.

PHOTO: James Gatheny / CDC

Despite my best efforts, a few days after I get home I come down with a sore throat. So I employ phase one of the emergency-response plan my ENT and I devised. First, it’s a five-day course of the steroid prednisone. I also start on Zycam, the homeopathic remedy even my ENT doc agrees can fend off, or at least shorten, the common cold.

For now, I hold off on phase two, the antibiotic tablets I keep with me at all times like someone allergic to bee stings carries epinephrine. (I’m nearly as afraid of becoming antibiotic resistant as I am of getting bronchitis.)

But a few days later the disgusting globs I’m coughing and blowing have turned a muted gray-chartreuse. Damn, my cue to start the doxycycline.

   It makes my tongue feel strange, like someone’s
   stapled a tiny sheet of aluminum foil over it.


All this time I’m also taking zinc. Lots of zinc. Not just the usual 25-milligram supplement I normally take daily, but 50 milligrams. Now I step it up even further, popping zinc-rich Airborne chewables like candy. Plus the Zycam, both lozenges and nasal spray, which I’ve now been taking every three hours, round the clock, for two weeks.

One interesting side effect of taking Zycam, whose instructions call for its being dissolved slowly on the tongue, is that it makes my taste buds feel strange, like someone’s stapled a tiny sheet of aluminum foil over my tongue. Nothing tastes right.

Flash forward to last Sunday morning. I’m on just my second day of the doxy, still inundating myself with zinc. I wake up to a wave of nausea, run to the bathroom and vomit.

The spewing continues all day. While any thought of food is a non-starter, I know I at least have to stay hydrated. But even sipping a quarter cup of water is like adding fuel to a fire; I erupt.

Around 6:00 PM, I assume the position yet again. Oh, my God, there couldn’t be anything left to throw up; this is going to be just dry heaves. Nope. I heave about two  quarts of clear, colorless water.

Now my wife gets concerned, even more than I. We’re wondering what has hit me. The flu? Everything we find online says that usually involves a fever, not vomiting. But I don’t have a fever, nor any of the overall body involvement one expects with the flu. Food poisoning? But I haven’t had anything at all to eat since last night.

Out of ideas, I ask her to Google “zinc, poisoning.” Turns out Wikipedia and most reputable medical websites acknowledge the metal’s toxicity, but only in massive doses—about twice as much as I’ve been taking. Symptoms include vomiting and several other effects I, thank God, am not experiencing.

Almost all the articles refer to “a metallic taste in the mouth” and possible deadening of the taste buds. Some say the Zycam nasal spray can permanently damage one’s sense of smell.

     Is the presumption that one can have any 
     control whatsoever over one’s health perhaps 
     a little arrogant?

With night approaching—a Sunday to boot—and no certainty one of those storefront urgent care services would administer intravenous fluids and electrolytes, we head to the Regions Hospital E.R. After a series of brief interactions with various nurses and technicians over a six-hour period—believe me, I understood that auto accident, gun-shot and drug overdose patients were outscoring me in triage—I finally get my I.V. and some anti-nausea medication. Within an hour, I’m headed home.

So what did I learn from this miserable, memorable day? That I didn’t have pneumonia. That I probably had gastroenteritis, quite likely unrelated to my sinusitis. That zinc, while it may have contributed to my nausea, probably wasn’t the main culprit. (Nonetheless, I'm in no hurry to start taking it again.)

I’m happy to report that my sinus/respiratory infection feels like it’s on the way out. I celebrate that I’ve managed to avert another case of bronchitis.

Still, I’m left wondering: Has my less-than-stellar experience with zinc proven not only that my obsessive efforts to stave off colds just don’t work, but that they might actually hurt me? Is wearing a surgical mask while flying even worth the discomfort and embarrassment?

And, perhaps the most important question: is the presumption that one can have any control whatsoever over one’s health a misplaced hope, perhaps a little arrogant? What does this say about one’s faith? These thoughts are just beginning to percolate in my mind. What do you think? 

Friday, January 12, 2018

WHAT’S UP?...OR DOWN? – Breaking the Bounds of Vertical Perception

I was reminded today, in a news report about some newly discovered deep-sea organism, that the deepest part of Planet Earth's oceans is the Challenger Deep section of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific about halfway between New Guinea and Japan. There the depth has been measured at just over 36,000 feet.

That got me thinking of how inept we human beings are, accustomed as we are to experiencing and gauging horizontal distances, at fully comprehending vertical distance.

PHOTO: National Geographic

Sure, we all know about those monumental NASA expeditions into earth orbit, then to the moon, Mars, and now deep space. And we know that people keep venturing to ever-deeper parts of the ocean—think the resting place of the fabled Titanic, at 12,400 feet.

But can we really grasp how high is high and how deep is deep?

           We set her on auto pilot and sit back
           with a good novel.

You may know how I like to play with perspective in the way I look at Nature and life. Well, one way of appreciating vertical reach is to imagine the one instrument of speed and distance we are most accustomed to—the automobile—and turn the axis against which we measure its motion from horizontal to vertical.

So picture this imaginary vehicle that can act just like our own family car—we can get in, start it up, take off and easily accelerate to highway speed. Except this vehicle can only go up or down. Oh, and, magically, it can cut through salt water as effortlessly as our real, horizontal car can through air.

Got the idea? OK, now back to that deep trench in the western Pacific. We’re on a ship, floating right over it. Our amazing vertical water car is suspended over the side by a crane and we’re at the wheel. On command, the crane releases us and we floor it, straight down.

In ten or twelve seconds, we hit 60 miles an hour. At that speed, you’d think we'd want to keep an eye out for the bottom pretty soon; after all, the seafloor is right down there. Nope. We can just keep the pedal to the metal, at highway speed, relax and listen to two average-length songs* on Spotify—almost 7 minutes—before we near our destination.

Once we slow down and nudge the bottom, we turn right around and head back up. Only this time, we’ll traverse the distance from that deepest ocean floor right through the ocean's surface and all the way up to the elevation of earth’s highest point above sea level, the summit of Mount Everest (at 29,035 feet, over 1 1/4 miles closer to sea level than the Challenger Deep).

This time, we set her on auto pilot and sit back with a good novel. If it's a page-turner we can devour 20 or 25 pages before this mile-a-minute leg of our trip is done.

          This “super-sense” is among the few 
          tools we possess for appreciating our 
          place and scale in the world.


Nature holds so many wonders we can barely appreciate for their true scale—that is, until we shift our vantage point, our way of thinking. Part of the challenge is that the world is so immense, and we are so pitifully small. Another is that, by the time we get used to thinking a certain way about something for decades, we become inured to the degree and scale of its spectacle.

How sad and unnecessary that so many of us, subject to the constraints of schedules and responsibilities—and maybe a little wear and tear on our faculties—lose our child-like sense of wonder.

The good news is that it's easy to reclaim it. Get outdoors, preferably with kids, explore, play and take time to simply be fully present with Nature. This is the medium in which human senses were meant to function best. Not just the orthodox five senses, but many others whose existence is just beginning to be recognized.

One that’s especially pertinent to this post is proprioception, the sense of the relative position of one’s body parts and the effort being exerted in moving them. It’s this “super-sense,” together with the vestibular system of the inner ear, and, of course, our better-known senses, that helps us appreciate our place and scale in the world.

Failing to nurture and grow all those senses, including fully comprehending and being moved by vertical space, is to squander a precious gift. Especially if we give them up in a bad deal with the little digital devil residing in all those glowing screens in our lives.

* Song length / A Journal of Musical Things

Saturday, December 30, 2017


I believe I'm surrounded by wonders great and small, all the time, wherever 
I am.

I understand that many of those miracles lie hidden to first glances.

I will open my spirit to wonder. My eyes, my ears, my heart will follow.

I will make time for awareness, curiosity and wonder.

I will turn off the television, put down the book and start looking, learning and living first-hand.

I will decide for myself what entertains me and, more importantly, what nourishes my soul.

I will notice and celebrate the power of presence.   

I will carefully examine the myth of certainty, and value learning more than knowing.

I will be more aware of the miracle of grace that resides around and within 
every person.

I will shine the light of my own spirit, and will give other people the chance to shine too.

I will try to experience everything as if it were for the first time.

I will approach each day with faith in Nature's instruction, and with gratitude for being Her lifelong pupil.

I will be patient, not just with Nature, but with myself, celebrating small steps in the right direction.

I will seize every opportunity to help a screen-bound child reconnect with Nature. 


Framing example only; frame not included in offer.
Print it out, frame it, or make it the background of your computer desktop.
Give a framed copy to someone you know who's also yearning to reclaim wonder in his/her life.

Thanks for taking the Reclaiming Wonder Pledge! Have a wonder-full day!

Friday, December 22, 2017


I wish all my visitors and loyal followers from all over the world—75 countries so far—the very best of this season. For us Christians, that means MERRY CHRISTMAS! (para mis hispanohablantes amigos, ¡FELIZ NAVIDAD!) For my Jewish friends, it's HAPPY HANUKKAH! For all of us here in the northern hemisphere, it's HAPPY WINTER SOLSTICE! 

Whatever your celebration, may these days be kind to you, your families and your loved ones. May they bring you new awareness, wonder and gratitude!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Those of you who have my book, Under the Wild Ginger, may have read my how-to-be-in-the-moment tip number 48, Behold the Cream in Your Coffee.*  It celebrates the simplest of small delights, the way cream billows up from the bottom when poured into a clear glass mug of hot coffee.

Well, as of this morning, I’ve think I’ve reached a new zenith in my ascent of coffee’s small wonders: the layered latte. It’s reported in a Dec. 15, 2017 post on the blog Mental Floss.

While I’ve never even seen it on a coffee shop’s menu, the layered latte apparently is a real drink in which, instead of the steamed milk being poured into the hot espresso, the espresso is poured into a clear mug or glass of hot milk.

If poured at just the right rate and given a few minutes to sit undisturbed, the two substances should separate into these distinct layers, a neat banded gradient from mostly milk at the bottom to mostly coffee at the top.

Here’s how the New York Times has distilled the physics of the layered latte: “When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.”

C’mon, there has got to be more to this than just that old high-school-physics precept “Heat rises; cold falls.” Here, because both liquids start out hot—and, according to the article, the layering sometimes lasts for hours—I have to believe the whole mugful starts and stays at pretty much the same temperature.

Then is it something about the relative densities of hot espresso and hot milk? And what explains why, instead of a uniform blending from light to dark, the concoction settles into these sharply defined layers.

So where do we find the answers? Any of my barista friends out there also happen to be physicists? Or perhaps chemists? Or maybe one of those big shots in the present administration in Washington could just make up something to explain this elegant little surprise of science. Nah...more likely, they’d just deny it; some jive about fake brews. (Sorry.)

* Is there anything so dark, yet so clear, as black coffee? And the smell...oh my, you start thinking of it in the middle of the night.
How could it get any better? Use a clear glass mug, add cream, and watch dusky thunderheads billow in a mahogany sky.
From UNDER THE WILD GINGER – A Simple Guide to the Wisdom of Wonder – Jeffrey D. Willius