Wednesday, November 22, 2017

WONDERS GREAT AND SMALL – A Thanksgiving Blessing

Here's a Thanksgiving blessing I'd like to share. I happen to pray to God, but if your reverence for the incredible is directed to a force of a different name, feel free to plug it in as you like.

 Oh God, you appear to all of us in different ways. Ways so vast and powerful that we cannot grasp them, so minute that we fail to notice them. Lord, hear our thoughts and prayers of thanksgiving and help each of us be more fully aware of your blessings large and small:

Thank you for the vast expanse, the limitless wonder, of your creation,
And for the cold, wet, honeycomb pattern of the skin on a dog’s nose.

Thank you for Nature’s great ebbs and flows—her awesome power;
her transcendent beauty; her inexorable rhythms,
And for our lover’s heartbeat.

Thank you for the fascinating family of man—in all its colors, shades and textures—and the values and aspirations we share.
Thank you too for our family—those sitting at this table and those present in our hearts.

Thank you for the good, the pure, the true that resides at the core
of every human being,
And the chance to share a smile and a kind word with a stranger.

Thank you for your infinite bounty—the abundance with which you
nourish us in body, mind and spirit.
And thank you for this glorious meal we’re about to share.

Thank you for your promise of eternity,
And for this moment—this one...precious...moment of life.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

AWARENESS TO THE POWER OF N – Finding Our Place In Infinity

Have you ever seen this amazing video by Danail Obreschkow that attempts to show, in just three minutes, the vastness of the known universe? It starts with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera then begins to draw back. The woman, lying on grass, gradually becomes a small dot in a complex of buildings. The scene soars continuously into ever-broader panoramas: the whole city, then rivers and mountain ranges, sea coasts, the recognizable outlines of continents.

Out and out the eye travels. Soon the earth itself shrinks to a pin point; then it’s the solar system lost in the distance; then the Milky Way; then other galaxies. And, finally, at about ten billion light years away from the woman’s face, we’re looking at a fine mist each of whose nano-droplets is a galaxy.

This has all happened in 60 seconds. Then the process reverses; the camera starts back toward infinitesimal Earth. Falling, falling…until once again that apartment complex appears, that little speck on the lawn, and finally the woman’s face.

As if that weren’t enough with the perspective thing, the view now moves seam- lessly into the woman’s left eye and navigates a comparable journey into inner space—from cells, to molecules, to electrons…all the way to quarks.

     Why, one might wonder, do we keep wasting 
     the effort to measure something we all can be 
     quite sure is immeasurable?

How stunning, for a visual learner like me, to see this perspective illustrated so graphically. But a few numbers I've come across recently can also make the point.

Yes, our world—this earth—is us. But in terms of its place in the solar system, meh, we’re just another of eight apples in the sack. (Nine, if one accepts the presence of the as-yet-unseen “planet nine.”)

And the solar system? Our all-powerful sun is just one of at least 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and who knows how many of those twirl their own planets around them?

So you think we’re rhetorically zoomed out far enough to maybe begin grasping the vastness of the universe? Not quite. Take our little galaxy with its billions of stars…and multiply it by another 200 billion. That’s how many galaxies astronomers were thinking existed.

Hubble took this 100-hour exposure of a spot in space previously thought to be virtually empty.
PHOTO: Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA

That was a decade ago, when the NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was providing its earthshakingly clear examination of the universe. Current research suggests even that number is at least ten times too small.* Does anyone at all believe that these wild stabs at enumeration won’t just keep growing?

It’s like economic hyperinflation; the currency of classification becomes so worthless that we keep having to issue new, ever-larger “denominations” of terminology. So now, acknowledging the futility of counting even galaxies, scientists are beginning to think in terms of a “multiverse,” comprising numerous universes.

Why, one might wonder, do we keep wasting the effort to measure something we can all be quite sure is immeasurable?

It’s beyond me.

         We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, 
         but perhaps more important… the universe is in us. 
         Many people feel small, because they’re small and the 
         universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came 
         from those stars. ~ DR. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

* NASA galaxy count    

Friday, October 13, 2017

CITRUS PARADISI – An Odoriferous Ode to Grapefruit

Years ago, when I started taking Simvastatin (generic Zocor), they said I shouldn’t eat grapefruit. I’m sure glad I stopped—the Simvastatin, not the grapefruit.

There's nothing quite like eating a good, fresh grapefruit. There’s that wonderful sweetness-acidity balance; the fragrant flavor and slightly bitter aftertaste—unlike that of any other citrus fruit; and, of course, that riotous explosion of juice.

And visually, I mean come on, just look at this feast of form, texture and color. The tough, pigskin-like rind, its mottled structure running all the way through. (These distinct little oliferous vesicles* contain aromatic oils that are released when cut or abraded.) The skin’s moist, cottony, cream-white lining (albedo) laced with pink-tinged veins.

Then there are the fine, gossamer membranes encasing each segment; the wrinkled, irregular seeds; and the feathery, fecund little cavern that runs through the fruit’s core when the central column is removed.

And, best of all, the dense packing of all those glistening, translucent little water balloons (juice vesicles) bursting with liquid.

     Grapefruit was not recognized as genetically 
     distinct from the pomelo until the 1830s.

This sublime fruit so engages me that I have to do a little research. I find that grapefruit’s existence was first documented in Barbados, in 1750. At that time it was referred to as “Shaddock”—for a sea captain said to have first bred it—or “forbidden fruit.” More likely, though, it’s a naturally occurring hybrid of Jamaican sweet orange and Indonesian pomelo.**

Grapefruit was not recognized as genetically distinct from the pomelo until the 1830s, when it was assigned the scientific name citrus paradisi.


Friday, September 29, 2017

BEYOND WORDS – A Dialog of the Spirit

I’ve been visiting Harold (not the man's real name) as a hospice volunteer for three months now. His diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, and the reason he’s in hospice is that it’s quite advanced.

When I first met him, Harold could talk. That is, he had enough breath to make sounds, and he could move his lips. He’d even punctuate his comments with hand gestures and the occasional little chuckle. But very little of it came across clearly enough for me to understand.

As for my end of the conversation, I’d tell him what kind of a day it was outside, report on how the Minnesota Twins were doing, or maybe recount one of my experiences I thought might resonate with one of his. Occasionally, when he was tracking, he’d respond to something I said quite clearly, “Oh, is that right?” That was nice to hear.

I did my best. Most often that meant simply maintaining eye contact with him as
he spoke, trying to keep that faintly-received channel open. Since I didn’t want to pretend to understand when I didn’t, all I could do was nod so he’d know I was, if not understanding, at least hearing him.

Once in a while I’d make out a word or two. If I heard “brother,” I’d respond, “Oh, your brother. Uh-huh” or “I’ll bet you and your brother were quite a pair.” Anything to preserve a crack in that shell of isolation the poor man must inhabit.

      I remember vividly why I originally signed 
      up for hospice work...I knew it had little to 
      do with words.

Harold still likes to talk, but now, at this week’s visit, he’s clearly faded…a lot. He’s gazing up at me with what appears to be the intent of speaking, but I have to look hard to detect the subtle movement of his lips. I hear wisps of air coming out of his mouth, but he can no longer make a sound.

I’m so sad for him; I know he’d once been a pretty gregarious fellow. He still had the will, but not the way. I also feel an arresting sense of gratitude. Yes, of course, simply for not being Harold, but also for the opportunity– the privilege—of being with this good man at such a vulnerable point in his life.

I’m a writer; my stock in trade is communicating with words. So this is unfamiliar territory for me. Yet I remember vividly why I originally signed up for hospice work. I felt I had something spiritual to offer. I wasn’t quite sure how to describe it, but I knew it had little to do with words.

So I’m sitting here at Harold’s bedside, and he’s just looking up into my eyes. It’s a little unnerving, but I feel something—I’ll call it energy for lack of a better word—flowing between us. It feels good, and I can only hope Harold feels it too.

I take his gnarly hand and hope I can convey some kind of understanding that way. I don’t know how much he can grasp, but I acknowledge how awful it must be to have thoughts ambushed like that before he can get them out. “It’s okay,” I reassure him. “I’m hearing you.”

Our hour together comes to an end. I take his hand again and ask if it’s okay for me to come back next week. He just looks at me. As I walk away, I recall the moment, just the week before, when, after I’d strained the whole time to understand a word here and there, he somehow managed to say, as plain as day, “Thank you for coming.”

Today, he says nothing. But his eyes follow me through the door.

Monday, September 25, 2017

HARD TRUTHS – The Telling Face of Rocks

This gray Keweenawan basalt, whose fifty-foot ramparts flank this stretch of the St. Croix River, is unfathomably old, dating from the Precambrian Eon, somewhere between 500 million and a billion years ago.

It is also the hardest basalt-type rock in America—so hard that boulders of it were used by NASA to test the drills employed on the moon probe.

And yet, these rocks are far from the static, silent objects they seem. There is movement here; those sinuous lines—visible only when the sun shines at just this angle—bring to the moment red-hot lava’s flow when life on earth consisted of little more than algae.

 There are distinctly human 
 utterances here.

These rocks speak volumes of a broad swath of history. Cracks and fissures recount epic battles between ice and stone, heat and cold, forces commanded by gravity. Lichens, some of their species nearly as old as the rocks themselves, bear testament to those ancient algae. For, in the face of otherwise untenable circumstances, only the subsumption of those algae by the lichen has enabled them to survive.

Near the cliff's base, the St. Croix’s natural scums and dissolved tannins have ranked water-level horizons on the rock face—a subtlety captured in just the last nanosecond of geologic time.

And, perhaps most compelling for their flesh-and-blood kinship with the likes of me, there are distinctly human utterances—portrayals of hands, a buffalo head and other symbols—likely made by Dakota or Ojibwe hunters nearly 1,000 years ago.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


(A follow-up on my Facebook post the other day showing spruce boughs festooned with bright red box elder bug nymphs)

I’m out walking Sylvia the puppy. It’s cooled off considerably from the last-gasp-of-summer heat wave of the past few days, but it’s still a lovely, fall-ish sunny day.

I notice a couple of small sun-lit spots on the lawn slapped with blotches of red: dense swarms of box elder bugs. One numbers at least 1,000; the other, maybe half that number. The two hordes are about three feet apart.

Sylvia spots them and follows her nose to the smaller group. When she’s about a foot away, they scatter, suddenly, haphazardly…and all at once. Their flight evenly dilutes the red spot, and within five or six seconds it’s gone.

Meanwhile, the larger swarm has not moved. But I watch—fully expecting wonder as usual—as those insects headed that way from the first group reach its perimeter. Then—mind you, I now have Sylvia firmly in tow several feet away—the second legion explodes in flight simultaneously just as the first had.

         I’d have expected one of the heralds to 
         shout "Run for your lives!" or at least
         wave its wings madly.

PHOTO: Timothy Ng

Now, I can understand how the big, red, compound eyes of every single one of the box elder bugs in that first swarm may have caught sight, in the same instant, of the schnauzer colossus coming at them. They’re out of there; no communication needed.

But for the second swarm to have reacted identically, with no sensory input other than the approach of a few fugitives from the first group, begs the question: how do these little red-coats communicate?

I’d have expected one of the heralds to shout "Run for your lives!" or at least wave its wings madly, but it turns out box elder bugs don't do that. Instead, it’s quite likely a matter of scent—one which apparently disperses incredibly quickly.*

All this leaves open the broader question: how do other creatures do it? A murmuration of starlings, chased by a falcon, sloshing like pools of water across a pitching sky. A school of 10,000 of herring veering as one from marauding dolphins.

PHOTO: John Myers

I guess we’ll leave that investigation for a future post. That’s what it’s like with Nature; so many questions, so little time.

Adults and nymphs have a pair of scent glands located on the dorsal side of the abdomen that secrete monterpene hydrocarbons and may be used for communication. Boxelder bugs also have a pair of ventral abdominal scent glands through which males secrete an exocrine compound during copulation to stimulate or claim the female. It is speculated that males also use this secretion during confrontations with other males. Males are attracted to the odor secreted by females. Boxelder bugs have compound eyes and ocelli, which are believed to aid in perception of the environment along with antennae, the primary sense organs. There are no acoustic or vibrational signals used for communication. (Aldrich, et al., 1990; Bauernfeind, 2005; Millar, 2006)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

OPPOSITE REALITIES – At Sea In a World of Duality

On my frequent trips to New England—more specifically, to the very maritime South Shore area south of Boston—I see nautical charts everywhere. They decorate the walls of bars, hang in peoples homes, plaster the sides of trucks.

These handsome maps—some are works of art, really—show everything a sailor needs to know about the waters he or she is navigating. Water depths, natural features of the seabed, the ins and outs of the coastline, navigational hazards, locations of natural and human-made aids to navigation, information on tides and currents, and local details of the Earth's magnetic field.

It’s not surprising that sailors would have a unique, rather self-centered way of looking at the world; naturally, they think of the sea as where everything that matters to them happens. And surrounding it, the land, all but void, inconsequential except for its ability to shape one’s course and the winds and currents that affect it.

We landlubbers, on the other hand, see our element as the center of our world. The sea surrounds us. Our maps show everything we need to navigate our element, but leave the oceans nearly devoid of detail. Of course we’re aware of the seas, but, again, they're like an afterthought, acknowledged only for what they can do for us…or to us.

What can this equivalency of opposites teach a curious person about life? Do opposites—like opinions, let’s say—always have equal value? Metaphysically, might they be just mirror images of the same thing?

With much of what happens in my life I strive for a sort of quasi-Buddhist view: that one outcome has no more relevance or value than another. That the only things that really matter are—to quote the Buddha himself—how much you love, how gently you live, and how gracefully you let go of things not meant for you.

Easier said than done.

  Could the radically differing truths people seem 
  to espouse these days be, like those maps, simply 
  two different, but equally valid, versions of the 
  same reality?

A old friend was once diagnosed with cocci meningitis, a disease which at that time had a very high mortality rate. He chose to fight the disease with an arsenal of non-traditional weapons, including Buddhist spiritual practice. I’ll never forget his heartfelt summation of his chances: “If surviving this is a decadent bowl of chocolate ice cream, then dying from it is vanilla. They’re both ice cream.” (He ended up with the chocolate.)


Sure, I know this kind of stuff intellectually; its truth resides somewhere deep in my soul. But what about in my nuts-and-bolts, emotion-tinged real life? Can I really live with such ambivalence?

After all, it might help me as I ponder the extraordinary political and cultural polarization eroding civility in the US—and other developed countries around the world. Could the radically differing truths people seem to espouse these days be, like those maps, simply two different, but equally valid, versions of the same reality?

Or is it just a matter of which slices of the unfathomable totality of reality we choose to see, leaving the rest, like the land to a mariner, as one enormous blind spot?

I must say I’m having a hell of a time achieving the degree of inner peace that would allow me to see some of my countrymen’s utter denial of my reality—think “alternative facts”—as the vanilla ice cream to my chocolate.

What about you? What truths do you find in this notion of opposing voids and their relative validities? Can you stand on the solid ground of your own reason and values, and still accept the contrasting reality of those who seem so at sea?