Ocean of Being

The Bean, Chicago
Lots of wavers usually strike this sphere

“In the same way when the ocean has a wave on it, the wave is not separate from the ocean, is it? Every wave on the ocean is the whole ocean waving. The ocean waves and it says, ‘you-hoo! I’m here, see?’ But I can wave all over the place, I can wave in many different ways, I can wave this way, I can wave that way. So the ocean of Being waves every one of us. And we are its waves. But the wave is fundamentally the ocean.”

I happened to be walking on the beach on a gorgeous January Saturday afternoon listening to Alan Watt’s audiobook, You’re It! On Hiding, Seeking, and Being Found. Pondering his lecture on Zen Buddhism. How the individual is inseparable from her environment, how she is the cosmos—mere skin boundaries and the notion of “I” an illusion, if I got that right. We are what’s out there.

One wave in my daily life feels like thousands of waves, so much cacophony competing for attention. Bright shiny things on the web, one link leading to another, millions of us vying to express realities, get attention, offer services or some sort of connection. Bookmarks, podcasts, videos I will never get to. A deafening, shuddering roar. Riptides that suck me off-course.

The Ocean of Being is waves of chaos; I am a giant anemone extending millions of soft pudgy arms, reacting to currents, to pressure, to invisible forces, bumping each tendril tentacle around and around and waving, Me Me Me! Suck and bash and swallow and regurgitate.

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Oh, dear, I forgot where I found this cutie online.

Offline, I have piles of magazines waiting for me all around the house that clutter-minders would say “Throw out!” because they just remind you of your failures, of all the things in your busy life you can’t get to, to: The New Yorker,  Discover, Grit (will I ever build my own chicken coop?), Mother Jones, Mother Earth Living, Herb Companion, Sunset (recipes), Riviera (nightlife), The New York Times (life), Poets & Writers (art), The Writer’s Chronicle, Atlantic (culture), Smithsonian (history), National Geographic, Psychology Today, Orion, CityBeat (pop culture), Outside, Backpacker, Sierra (trips, save the planet), my husband’s Stanford (do-ers), The Sun, Zzyzzyva (and other literary journals), and one Mad Magazine (puerile fun)  I just couldn’t resist buying two years ago and still haven’t read. If I can’t let the outside in, who am I?

I have stacks of excellent books to read. I can’t even get through the entire Sunday New York Times each week, so how can I get to all this other wonderful stuff. But I love stories, I love information, I could swim butterfly through the Zeitgeist. I can’t bear to part with potential. I could learn anything from anywhere and want to. That’s who I am and want to be. A sea sponge.

It's not exactly neighborly, but you get the drift.
It’s not exactly neighborly, but you get the drift.

It used to be you leaned over the fence and learned something useful or listened to a yarn, accident, tale. Sometimes you had to be patient to wade through a lot of noise. But then something useful, meaningful, would boil up. Now, I have a million neighbors on physical and digital pages, all at the fence, all hyperready to lean in and tell me something, share a tip or experience that will make my life richer and more meaningful in the transmission. Define me.

I love my technology, my electricity, being able to plug my electric kettle into the wall and get hot tea in seconds while surfing the web. But I long for a simpler time, a candlelit fantasy which would come only from an emergency blackout with its enforced stillness of time and noise (courtesy of a wildfire, earthquake, mass accident, or other calamity). I imagine, if my only job is to wait it out, that I could finally pile down to the stacks and stacks of magazines and books, the old school reading. Clear the path for all the digital delights just waiting for the lights to come on. Let the cosmos of voices in.

It’s all so damned interesting, me stuck here on my one little outcrop, clinging to my own little barnacle-encrusted piece of oceanic violence and human crush. Now I’m waving at you. Bye-bye. Off to read or to write one more thing to add to the cacophony.

protea-ax
And another cutie whose source I’m afraid I can’t attribute.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! Mexican Mint Plant with a Bang!

Salvia divinorum

Chia’s not all you think. Didn’t know you could actually smoke that Homer head? (Yes, you can buy a chia plant that grows out of Homer’s massive cranium.) But that ain’t the smokable variety, actually, it’s a cousin in the giant Salvia clan.

Of a zillion species, the Salvia you usually eat is sage–or drink, if you love The Linkery, North Park’s delish farm-to-table eatery that serves a divine white sage water in a chilled carafe–or inhale if you’re a Native American in a cleansing rite–or brush against if you’re a witless hiker in California’s coastal sagebrush, what’s left of it.

The naughty little smokin’ number is Salvia X5, X10, X15…X40–the trendy alternative reality vacation fueled by powdered leaves of Salvia divinorum dropped into a bong, pipe, or lit potato, depending on your level of sophistication.

The higher the X-factor, the longer your freaky little trip. The equivalent of dialing the amp to eleven is X45, and you’ll need a spinal tap after that.

This Salvia X-number is actually legal and yet too scary for a control freak like me who likes to keep tabs on her brain or at least not savor the sensation of her brain getting [a] hit with an IED then melting like Mt Pinatubo.

For me, I get a bang out of the tamer Homer-type chia seeds. I drink ‘em.

I’m talking about the Salvia hispanica variety (in Linnaeus’ stuffy European taxonomy): Nahual-speaking ancients and their descendants from here to Costa Rica call it chía (translates to “oily”–ancient Indians were way ahead of us on the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids).

The Mexican state of Chiapas means chia water or river, says Wikipedia. I wanna go there, mecca-style, because now I’m addicted to the damned seeds. Perhaps the ancient Olmecs or Mayans left some sorta shrine there with magic seeds to plant so I don’t have to keep ordering them online.

These teeny tiny taxicabs of omega-3 fatty acids, alpha-linolenic acid, fiber, calcium, boron are chock full of fashionable antioxidants like quercetin, powerhouses of protein. They keep me going now that a Snicker bar won’t do.

I know about these delightful little seeds from two places.

Fifteen years ago, during the late Pleistocene, I edited a 567-page tome called The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica written by a spry Muriel Weaver for the third time. She was probably as old as the ancient Toltecs and not to be trifled with.

Muriel wrote, ‘eating nothing but a handful of the chia seeds enabled an Aztec warrior to march for 24 hours without additional food and water.’ I’m paraphrasing, because the hell if I can’t find her original sentence. Even though I edited that whole damn index. This stuff was so good it was used as commerce.

It’s Money, man. It’s a mint.

Inspired to try this miracle marching food, I searched Henry’s, Whole Foods, any funky place that might market such a seedy wonder. But it was the early 90s. No one with any marketing savvy had heard about it. No one but me and a few hardened academics had ever and will ever read Muriel’s book. The folks down in Chíapas have been chowing it uninterrupted for thousands of years, I’m sure.

A seedless decade and a half go by. Irma, a likely descendant of these lucky chia-eaters and possible smokers, even hails from the region and would prefer living there if only she could, comes once a week to save us from squalor. A friend recommended her, disgusted with our bourgeoisie DIY housecleaning mentality, because we never had time to socialize on weekends, no, just clean clean clean, sorry, we don’t have time.

We met Irma. She’s right up there with the most important lifesaving things in our budget; in fact, we made her a member of the family. I give her cilantro and guavas from the garden, she gives me grief for trying to help her clean. Our first attempt at hiring a housecleaner–named Joy, of all things–taught us to worship housecleaning quality. Joy was this gorgeous tiny thing with perfect makeup and hair, a charming rural drawl, drove a giant shiny green Ford Expedition, and whipped through our condo in a somewhat carefree manner, charging us nearly nothing. Her housecleaning business must have been a front for bringing Meth in from East County (we lived in Hillcrest at the time), because she eventually dropped us. Couldn’t afford us.

I’m getting somewhere with this. Trust me.

It was Irma who came into my life to tell me about ‘these amazing chia seeds’ nearly two decades after I read about and gave up on them. Her brother is “diabetico and he takes them, no more diabetes! His blood sugar–better! He loss weight, he have more energy! I take it. I have energy! You should take it! I get you some. No, really, I get you some!” I’m chronically tired from insomnia, but no matter, Irma correctly diagnosed my listless, ennervated state and prescribed me chia.

Next week I found a little baggie full of creepy little round, gray-black seeds atop “Irma’s” shining microwave. Thank you Irma! I followed the directions, adding water. After 20 minutes the seeds thicken into a tasteless viscous sludge. So I add Emergen-C acaí berry powder (from Trader Joe’s) and drink/munch the little creatures down. Yum. My kids are completely grossed out. As usual.

What’s weird, is that I run around, hauling girls through morning routines, jamming to school, summer camp, lessons, yoga, sports, playdates, this or that goddamn errand–and instead of freaking that I’ve broken that Must Eat Breakfast mandate (skinnier people eat breakfast-it’s the 11:00 onset of starvation that causes the rest of us to binge), I recall, with warriorlike strength, that I can march for 24 hours with no food or water on a handful of chia seeds.

I make it to my well-balanced late breakfasts or lunches unstressed, without the attitude from a blood sugar dive. Anxiety is always gnawing at my stomach: I typically mistake that sensation for hunger or for a void that needs to be filled. Which is why I call overeating Void-stuffing. (I should trademark that phrase into some kind of savvy Chia marketing campaign, if I weren’t so lazy.) I don’t think I’m having the blood sugar dips now. The chia seeds have gone on to absorb all the water from my body, sucking it into my stomach to gel for hours.

Ch-Ch-Ch-chia seeds save me from myself.

So if you get a chia kit for a present, eat it, dammit, Homer doesn’t need hair. Enjoy your seedy slurry of agua fresca, or chia fresca. I get you some online, really!

Atheism Asks the Impossible: A Stronger Faith

darwinatheistIrony vitamin for the day: The atheist comes off as hopeful; the evangelical as humanity’s biggest cynic.

After watching neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris square off with Evangelical Christian William Lane Craig over the topic: “Is Good From God?” I couldn’t shake the sense that this debate came down to one fundamental difference: How each of these men perceives basic human nature.

I take “good” here as both ‘being good’ and ‘doing good.’

The take-home message I got from this debate was (1) Craig believes that doing good, being good is motivated by belief in God and following God’s orders to be good. (2) Harris seems to say that ethical behavior is an aspect of human nature and an evolved culture; people are and can be ethical and good without resorting to a god.

Here Doesn’t Come Santa  I wonder how old Sam was when he decided to be a good boy on his own because he realized–Santa ain’t watching. And when Sam decided to be a decent person for decency’s sake and not because a mythological Father figure from above ordered him to be compassionate and good in lieu of burning in hell.

fsmI confess to a certain cynicism myself, and Harris has exposed my worst fears. A lifelong nontheist, I have secretly appreciated the religious orders for keeping the feral masses in check. I’m talking about people who don’t respect laws or fear the earthly punishments established in our civic codes of decency. Who might nonetheless ultimately be held in check from mass hooliganism or the simplest murder because they dread having to stand someday before a fearsome almighty Maker where, there and only there, they understand they finally have to account for their actions. I don’t mean “masses” in a Marxist sense here; just the unknown number of people out there who commit heartless, soulless–shall we say, for Craig’s sake–godless acts. This includes not just the abject murderer taking a life or stealing the smallest slice of a resource for that life, but the heads of certain corporations that gut the earth of her resources and dump its wastes on her soil, air, and water, with only one motivator: endless “growth” and profit. Exploiters and wasters and petty thieves and murderers are all part of the soulless masses, for me.

Duck, It’s a Flying Spaghetti Monster  I am not talking here about the horrific things people do in the name of religion–that’s a whole ‘nother topic that belongs under FSM.

I’m talking about whether people are innately good or not. Or if people need a God to be good. Would more folks commit crimes if there were no final reckoning? Would fewer do good deeds if they weren’t motivated by pearly gates?

Craig seems to say that human decency and codes of conduct aren’t enough. People need God to be good. He’s the ultimate cynic.

Not One More Goddamn Cigarette or Good Cause  I have no problem volunteering, giving, donating to things that matter, to causes that make life better and my community and the world a better place. I do these things because I care, not for some sort of afterlife tally. I take food to my elderly neighbor because it makes her smile and feel cared for and that in turn makes me feel good. I volunteered to teach reading to children whose parents weren’t around or had time because these kids enjoy stories and they feel bad about being so far behind. I pick up trash and disgusting cigarette butts from trails knowing that I’m leaving a gift for the next person and the creatures around me, the gift of a clean trail, and that makes me feel better in the abstract. And there are times I don’t feel like giving anything because I am all “giving”ed out and the crush of human and planetary need sometimes overwhelms. I want to scream a giant “Fuck You!” if I see one more goddamn cigarette butt out in nature. And I might plug my ears to yet one more good cause. But I don’t stay down for long. I try to do my part.

atheistsi

Am I an anomaly or simply an atheist who cares? “Atheist” is so loaded and saddled with pejorative connotation that I find I have to retreat to the more neutral “nontheist” apellation before the doors slam closed. I am a nontheist who cares deeply. With a spirit and a soul, just not  a religious one. In awe of the cosmos and all creation & chemistry, I meditate, I am thankful, I give back.

Just Say No to Bullies  My worst fear, whether humans across the board can be decent all on their own, without recourse to a deity, is the main reason I tolerate the bullying, the invasiveness, the pushiness of the religious hegemonies in our culture, in our families, in our communities, and unfortunately in our political discourse. I don’t say: Get out of my face with your bullying mythologies, your assumption that your beliefs trump everything in our culture and that I am not encouraged to speak my truths in equal measure; I am forced to listen to your prayer at Thanksgiving and I can’t say thanks to the numberless, countless creatures who actually did produce and provide this food without being considered disrespectful to the grandparents or a heretic. I stifle my pique when I hear someone say, ‘we are so blessed,’ which to me is the most short-sighted, narcissistic, and uncompassionate sentiment on the planet. OK, OK, I’m not being burned at the stake, here, but still. I’m surrounded.

I keep my mouth shut. Why? I’ve given into the fear that religions are doing some valuable work in helping keep the destructive forces of society in check, in providing some sort of structure for those who can’t make the time for their own existentialist crisis.

Harris shares the same fears. But he doesn’t let his fears get in the way of speaking his truth. That religion and God are a human construct. That good doesn’t come from God; it comes from people. That people can be good and decent simply because it’s the right and ethical way to be.

atheistaai

A Little Faith, Anyone?  Harris, atheist friend of humanity (he must be a friend, or why would he trouble?), is asking for the larger measure of faith. If we somehow swept out religion, would these people still be good? Can we possibly believe in our fellow human beings? All those people who watch Fox “news”? All those folks who desperately need their nondenominational and denominational churches? Harris is saying that religion is more trouble than it’s worth. Can society do without it? Could I share his faith that we will survive our neighbors if they are not specifically reminded every Sunday morning not to sin and also throw in a few good deeds?

I appreciate Harris showing me the light in his willingness to call a spade a spade. By giving into my own fears that–ooh, what if people aren’t inherently good? (Again, I don’t recall if Harris actually posited this–I’m just running with the ideas.) What if religion is serving some purpose, keeping society in check, giving people purpose–I am complicit in my own religious persecution, so to [not] speak. I thought I was being tolerant, being respectful of difference, respecting people of faith, by mostly I was keeping quiet my fears for humanity.

I’m still thinking about this larger issue of faith: faith in people and their inherent goodness. It’s a tough one. Maybe I should look at it as “the potential for good,” that we all have it, and that’s all we have. If people are good because they believe it comes from God, that’s a good start–it’s potential.

The debate was sponsored by the Notre Dame College of Arts and Letters: The Henkels Lecturer Series, The Center for Philosophy of Religion, and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.

Speechless for Smells

Why is it we have words for sounds and colors but not for smells?

I know what a banana smells like: it smells like the object it’s named for. It doesn’t smell yellow. And I can only further define the smell, based on the adjective of the name of the object, like unripe or ripe or overripe. Why isn’t there more of a science of smell?

On a piano, the key of A above middle C rings in at 440 Hertz and occupies a distinct notational space on the treble clef. The note “A” is often used as a tuning frequency. (Hear the violins in the orchestra warming up?) People with perfect pitch can hear someone singing or playing notes and name each one. For example, my piano teacher will tell me the last note she hears me play as she waits outside for me to let her in for my next hour of torture. She may say, “That was E-flat and your piano needs to be tuned.” Our Western music scale, all twelve notes zipping through an octave, say from C to C, stepping up and down from sharp to natural to flat, like a boot camp obstacle course, is called the chromatic scale.

Moving from ear sense to eye sense, there’s chromatics, the study of color. As with sounds, we have words for colors. Nothing beats opening a sixty-four box of crayons for the first time and experiencing the fabulous visual assault of cornflower blue duking it out with magenta, all those colors screaming Pick Me (and only one smell: crayon). We have names for particular bands of color, starting with Mr. Roy G. Biv (red orange yellow green blue indigo violet). We’ve studied the electromagnetic radiation of color such that we know wavelengths, frequencies, and energies all along the color spectrum. They have unique scientific notations (you can nail a particular shade of red down to its nanometer, Hertz, kiloJoule configuration)  that make it easy for us to define, name, communicate a particular color. And I’m sure some interior designer has named that particular frequency Tuscan Red, or something. (Red, incidently, occupies a frequency interval of 430-480 teraHertz. So Nathaniel Hawthorne was prescient, coming up with that scarlet letter A for his adultering little number, the unfortunate Hester Prynne, and the creepy village that tuned her up.)

Onto the nose. Awkward organ. Smell scientist Noam Sobel of the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel has been trying to find the cogs and wheels of our olfactory mayhem (as are plenty of other scientists around the world, as a quick PubMed search shows). Sobel has snatched some of the olfactory  molecules that latch onto olfactory receptors–we have a thousand of such smelly receptor types–attached to nerve endings in our nose, which, thus excited, ship electric signals to the brain which, in turn, produces a smell. Seems like it all happens in the nose, right? In any case, I believe the nostril’s the only place in our nervous system where nerves hit fresh air. Kind of like how our teeth are the only visible part of our skeletal system, hopefully.

Sobel is trying to sniff out a relationship between the structure of odor-producing molecules and their resulting smell. He has a database of 1,500 such molecules and a staggering catalog of 1,664 traits: their size, the strength of the chemical bonds between their atoms, and so on. (I thank Carl Zimmer, of Discover Magazine, May 2010, for this bit of nosiness.) So, for example, how tightly the atoms are packed determines the size of the molecule. These sizes are ranked on a continuum, and the farther apart molecules are from each other, the easier it is for folks to tell them apart by odor. Now I wish Carl articulated this concept better: Are the tiny, packed molecules the stinky ones? Odors grow more pleasant toward one end of the molecule-size continuum: Which end is it? How do I know which way to turn? I should probably read closer to the source but that would take me out of my current space-time continuum: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/27/37/10015.long .

Sobel’s whole endeavor shows us that we use another quality to define smell, besides the name and adjective of the overripe object, and that is whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant. We have the word (banana), the adjective (overripe), and the subjective emotion (yechh).

But still no word for the actual smell. Just circumstantial evidence.

Does anyone want to invent a lexicon for smell?  Have we a sniffsmith equivalent of the umamis of tastebud lore? A nasal lexicon, anybody, beyond ‘it stinks’? First we have to isolate the odoriferous molecule that occurs in both sheet-seasoned male sweat and bleu cheese, well, and maybe stale peanuts, and give that particular molecule ONE name, like swepeanche, and go from there. It’s going to be a lot of work. Because, really, we should have a word for everything.

Sobel is working on a digital transmission of smell. With a digital grid of sorts, perhaps we will eventually say “that smell is like a good ‘locus P-440’!” and someone will punch that in and know what we mean. His e-nose stuff is at http://tinyurl.com/6qkbuc3.

I have a couple friends who have to smell EVERYTHING; they are supersmellers, not unlike the supertasters, and their brain-olfactory maps should be digitized and perhaps connected to this digital grid I’m imagining Sobel’s cooking up, for the preverbal, electronic definition we’re headed for, first, for smells. Then our supersmellers can tell us if swepeanche is accurately coded before we go bleach the sheets. And for the record, it’s not fair to blame males for that sweat smell (I had six brothers, sorry). It’s an odor-producing molecule belched from a harmless bacteria, not to be confused with a fun-guy.

Symbiogenesis: bug your elders

Mommy & Daddy (pic from Wikipedia)

So humans, fanatic wielders of Clorox wipes, are just one branch in long genetic lines of bacterial evolution. Our great-to-past infinity-grandparents were bugs and we are bugs, and we already know we can’t live without them, whether you’re pro-biotic or anti-biotic in nature. Just our digestive tract alone hosts a good ten times more organisms than we have cells in our body.

Bugs R Us. Not only do we contain them, the cells in our bodies quite probably evolved from them. Next time I see a toddler stuffing her face with dirt I’ll just call it a family reunion.

Our bodies are a vehicle of sorts, carting around 100 trillion microbes, according Carl Zimmer, who writes about the human biome, among other things (New York Times Magazine, 12/3/11)Amy Barth reported that we pack around 200 trillion microscopic organisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi and lists where they lurk in our guts, pits, scalp, elbows, skin, and so on (Discover, March 2011). What’s the diff among a few trillion microorganisms.

When I go out to feed my worms kitchen scraps and shredded junk mail, it is not the red wigglers I’m actually feeding, but all the bacteria in their guts, which they kindly process into yummy fertilizer I cast onto my broccoli plants. (Which just get eaten by the allegedly higher Orders, like isopods, crickets, and rabbits, anyway.) I call the composting shelves my Worm Condo but perhaps I should name it “Penthouse of Bacteria,” instead.

We like to think humans are more than just bacteria pods, but are we? And yet—some of us feel we have a certain intelligence in our guts, but that’s another story.

{An aside, or Station Break}

Speaking of bacteria pods, it’s not fair that our body’s high water content (70%) gets all the attention, such that creatures in one episode of Star Trek called the human species Ugly Bags of Water. Particle physicists used to say we’re just a lot of empty space, considering the corresponding distance between an electron and proton in just one atom of our trillions of cells is the equivalent of 11 miles, if you pinned the suckers down: The now-outdated Bohr solar system atom model is still useful for high school biology teachers, but now we understand, with quarks and their constituents buzzing around a nearly light speed inside a proton—or among whatever energy, magnetic, or gravitational field hangs out around there, that this “space” is much fuzzier and smearier, a whole dark matter of mystery inside and around an atom inside and around whatever n-dimensional space. (If anyone read this post I’d probably get canned for that new atomic cosmic analogy, but what can I say? It was a Thought Quark.)

{And now back to Bugs}

My Science Times podcast (in an interview with Carl Zimmer, sometime early 2011) reminded me that the DNA of microorganisms residing in our Gut Palace outnumbers the human genome a hundred fold. Who’s genes are we? What about that gut intelligence?

Microbial ecologists have also found that people have different types of biomes, or unique sets of microbial colonizations, not unlike the four different blood types (A,B,AB,O)–a sort of gut fingerprint is how I see it. (That from another Science Times podcast, which I listened to while walking the dogs so I don’t always note the date before the next synch casts it off.)

{Is it pejorative to call Bacteria ‘Bugs?’}

Evolutionist and academic rabble-rouser Lynn Margulis, now in her seventies, is still stirring up the worm castings. She’s a bio-logical provocateur, one of my favorite kinds of people.  Discover interviewed her in April 2011, from which I gleaned some of her concepts.

Margulis revolutionized our understanding of evolution in 1967 with her concept that eukaryotes (cells with a nuke) and other complex cells evolved as a series of mergers among bacteria living collectively and then symbiotically. She believes that symbiosis, or “symbiogenesis,” is what makes new species evolve, far more than random mutations and natural selection. The latter exists more to maintain and weed existing species, she says. (That’s some heavy culling, I’d say, going from Neanderthal to Sapien sapien or Erectus to Habilis–what were they eating back then? We’re headed for Homo plasticus, minus the sapience, I fear.)

Margulis has some interesting points. Symbiogenesis better supports Stephen Jay Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium,” which is what you see as time gaps in the fossil record, for one.

Protoctists (eukaryotes) appear in the fossil record around 452 million years ago, Hominidae (our apelike forebearers) maybe in the past 15-20 million years, and actual humans, gosh, just in the past 200,000 years, max.

Ancient bacteria and their ilk became pretty handy at finding specialized niches those hundreds of million years ago: Margulis posits that every visible life form is a combination or community of bacteria.

Our teeny cellular powerhouses, mitochondria, for example, came from oxygen-respiring bacteria. We can’t live without these mighty organelles. When you run out of energy, blame them. In plants and algae, the great photosynthesizer, chloroplast, came from cyanobacteria (formerly known as “blue-green algae”).

How? So a zillion years ago, an amoeba couldn’t digest a bacterium, but they worked pretty well together—the bacteria made oxygen or vitamins that were helpful and at some point transformed themselves into mitochondria, because “long-term symbiosis leads to new intracellular structures” and so on, and here we all are, the isopods, the crickets, the rabbits.

Evolution, according to Margulis, is a series of acquired genomes. Sounds bio-logical to me.

Take the cilia (in rods and cones in the eye; in the inner ear, for balance; in motility systems all over the body): Rather than evolving from random mutation they could have come from the acquired genome of a spirochetish symbiotic bacterium that could sense light or motion, oh so long ago. Margulis theorizes that our cytoskeletal system came from the incorporation (what a perfect word) of ancestral spirochetes.

And why not? It makes as much sense as anything else. She really pisses off a lot of evolutionary biologists, though, among other theorists. They say, “wormshit!”

Margulis posits that all living cells possess consciousness, if consciousness is a matter of responding to sensory stimuli, if I read her right. Says Margulis, bacteria have been around since the origin of life and are still running the soil and air and affecting water quality.

Humans have been around for just a relative teeny blip in time; let’s round and say 1 million years vs. bacteria’s 350 million years–and look at all the havoc we wreak on the planet (OK, we’ve kind of junked up the solar system, too). Like an invasive species, we consider ourselves special and intelligent as we nonetheless overgrow our habitats.

In Margulis’ line of thinking, we’re starting to act like “mammalian weeds.”

A buggy weed.

Electronic Poisoning

Summer of 2007: My kids hated camping and hiking in the Redwoods.

We got them on the spongy trails with the giant trees and they said, “This is boring. When can we go home? This is stupid.”

One of the most glorious places on planet Earth failed to move my seven- and nine-year-old daughters. We even let them lead us on the trail, hoping that would spark a drive to explore. Had we already lost them?

I lost the competition to attract and fascinate their minds: the digital world beat me. If I’d whipped out a laptop and set it on a bench amongst this magnificent antediluvian, presaurian, banana-slugfilled landscape, they would have whooped with joy.

All I could think, as we headed around the trails and sustained our harangue of “uncoolness” was that they were irreversibly electronically poisoned. 

Where did I go wrong?

Not even preteens, but raised in Southern California on too much TV, starting with toddler day care, my daughters were already beginning to show signs of fashion sense and self-objectification. My seven-year-old loved flats and miniskorts. I’d bought educational CD Roms, but they gravitated to programs that allowed them to imitate and model urban life, like constructing whole SIMS villages and families. SIMs houses and their occupants were beautiful, except my daughter insisted on giving the dad a “hair peninsula,” which is what she called that spare remaining strip on my husband’s formerly prolific forehead.

Nothing on TV or in their software taught them to explore nature or told them that’d be cool, fashionable.

Whenever I sent them out in the neighborhood, on walks, they were the only ones out. Every parent in my generation seemed to think that if their kid went out to ride a bike or explore a canyon, that kid would be the one abducted and tortured. I sent my daughter once to walk to her friend’s house, and her mother, on the phone, panicked and sent her teens out to escort my child. I felt like a jerk.

I did walk to school with one of my daughters, and we held hands and watched birds, smelled morning flowers, chatted all the way through sixth grade. So many parents drove past us, rushing to work, smiling at us, though–some looking like they wanted to cry.

I lamented “electronic poisoning” to my hiking buddy, Brent, as we traversed seventeen miles into the backcountry of the Grand Canyon last year. He’d asked why my kids didn’t like to go hiking with me–not that they could handle what we were doing, attempting Cheyava Falls at the only time of year when the 800-foot waterslide is cranking–if you can handle the scramble to even get near the mist.

At base camp, Brent whipped out his backpacking reading material. The Economist, May 2010. I, for one, had brought Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Brent showed me research cited from the Kaiser Family Foundation, that American kids were spending more than seven and a half hours with media each day. “Into that space they packed an astonishing 10 hours and 45 minutes of consumption,” the article went on. And that’s where I blanked out.

One afternoon, on my walk to pick up my daughter from grade school (my oldest daughter refused the walk, horrified at the social implications), I listened to NPR, a book review on Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” and thought, ‘mmhmm, thank you, Mr. Louv, I already know. I’ve experienced this and realize, Houston, that we do have a problem.’

Who is going to write software to inspire kids to get out in the dirt, the real dirt, to explore, and by extension, protect our planet? Not just wilderness, which is already shrinking, but protect Nature, of which we are irreversibly–undigitally, unelectronically–but fundamentally and most desperately part? 

Clock Rage

It’s not just the hours. The days slip right out from beneath me.

Clock says 11:00 a.m. Still a few precious hours before I go get the kids from school. These hours, the ones that belong to me, are tick tick ticking away. I walk past the clock, always eyeing it, jealously eyeing it. Suddenly I turn back, “Aha! Caught you!” But it reads 11:01. But next thing I know, as soon as I get interested and involved, the clock  jumps ahead to 2:35. The last bell of school. I try to catch the clock in the act, its jumping past me in chunks  just when I’m getting busy, but I can’t, in some Heisenbergish Prinicipal of mockery.

I am furious with the clock. I can’t beat it. It owns me. It makes me drive rakishly fast through town, curse lines in the grocery store, hate the vast quantities in my inbox that suck it down. I am especially perplexed when it vaporizes when I’m having fun, say, writing.

Time’s fun when you ‘re having flies, someone said.

I need to run that “Moving Clocks Run Slow” experiment, which I understand is a misnomer, but I don’t understand exactly why: A clock ticking in a supersonic jet lapses less time than a clock ticking down below, on Earth. This proved what Einstein intuited before we broke the sound barrier, that time is relative. Time is relative in the worst way. (You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives, another someone said.)

As my free time ticks into its vapor trail, I am filled with rage. Why can’t time flow normally, when I need it most? If I just continue speeding my way through the day, why doesn’t time run slow?

Incidently, the funniest subtitle ever goes to Albert Einstein’s book (1916), “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, A Clear Explanation That Anyone Can Understand.”

Clearly, I don’t understand.

Time was timeless when I was little. Time stood still, but not in a good way, when I researched and helped write grants for  MRI studies of diseased livers. The liver is a Very Boring Organ. Every time I looked at the clock in that particular job and willed it to just please jump ahead a few hours and put me out of my misery, its dials slunk around the clock’s blank face. That job was not good for my liver. After hours.

The clock seems not to be my friend. Everyone notices that as they get older that time seems to speed up. I was twistedly relieved to read a passage in Hope Edelman’s latest memoir, The Possibility of Everything, about how the ancient Mayans viewed time and understood that the future accelerates, that each coming segment of time gets shorter and shorter. You’d think the Mayans felt they had all the time in the world, at least until 2012.

Maybe the Mayans had a problem with time, like I do, except they didn’t have a mocking clock. Maybe the scribes were getting older when they wrote that bit on accelerating time.

Deepak Chopra assures us that “Time isn’t working against you. Everyone needs to overcome this outworn belief. We can stop giving in to time as if it rules our lives.” Really?

Deep’ takes it one step further: “If we force our own limited conception of time and deadlines upon ourselves we disrupt these rhythms and become a victim of time. Whatever breaks down your body’s timing, creates aging.”

Banksy gets the last laugh:

Latin Gags: There’s Thrust in Brevity

Go Glad

Words that make me gag:

*micturate (to pee)
*macerate (to chew)
*parturition (birthing)

Writers studying craft tend to prefer the short, crunchy Anglo-Saxon portion of our lexicon over the more abstract latinates. Anglo-Saxon is pithy: Words like suck, chew, hit, piss, and fuck get to the point faster than their polysyllabic brethren. There’s thrust in brevity. The English language was not spared in the Roman conquests, and folks still use the language of its conquerors to sound important, sometimes laughably so.

I do like greco/latinates in the right place, but the words for bodily functions make me squirm. Whoever came up with “micturate” for gawd’s sakes? Ew. I will never run to the bathroom holding my crotch for fear of premature micturation. Maybe that’s why I dislike the word masturbation–a general clinical ickiness submerged in polysyllabic lip slapping (macerate on that one). The word sounds so clinical, depraved, shameful, nothing like the very human sport of jerking off that kids usually discover by age 13.

*sternutation: Who would ever think this means “to sneeze”? How about “snatiation”–this is sneezing uncontrollably on a full stomach, a recent amusing coinage; the Romance language lends itself to such unromantic pairings.

Latinates can give writers the perfect word in the right context; it’s a damned shame when writers and editors use it to obfuscate or, as in so much science/nonfiction writing, when they need to deploy the Squid Technique: that’s when you don’t know what to say (or how to say it) so you hide behind a cloud of ink.

Psst-watch out for those reds

Hungarians topple Stalin statue (photo from Wikipedia)

On Saturday, October 23, my eleven-year-old daughter finished her soccer game as clouds skidded across the sky. I said to our coach, Janos, who is Hungarian but came to the United States on a soccer scholarship years ago, “Happy Revolution Day.” My husband, whose father escaped Hungary in 1956, likes to make pörkölt, a kind of gulash, in commemoration. I think of Pierre, our friend in Paris, whose father survived communist prison camps, privation, and escape attempts.

Janos turned to our star soccer player’s mom, who was talking about her husband being from Cleveland. “I hated Cleveland!” Janos said, “It was awful! I was ready to go back to Communism after living there!”

I think all Hungarians have a penchant for hyperbole, but the soccer mom went one further, and said, “You don’t need to, Obama is bringing communism here, the direction this country is heading!”

Communism isn’t an abstraction to survivors of the Soviet takeover and their descendants. Russian tanks rattled into Budapest and the entire community rose up in protest, staving off bewildered soldiers for three wildly glorious days until the Red army rallied and crushed the opposition. My father-in-law is full of harrowing stories, including when he and his sister were nearly executed one evening, after getting caught bringing dinner to the resistance.

But at the mention of communism this fine Fall Saturday, the soccer mom went off. “Yeah, look at what Obama’s doing, all his scary socialist policies, he’s leading this country into hell….”

Janos had the temerity to say, “I am socialist to his bone”–look at Sweden, look at France, Germany, he said, all the other developed counties that provide decent healthcare, education, and so on. The soccer mom is probably so scandalized, who knows–maybe she’ll pull her daughter from the team to prevent further infection.

What Obama wants is not communism, let alone true socialism. It’s common sense and human decency for a society to provide its citizens basic needs.

What Obama wants is not communism: It’s common sense and human decency for a society to provide its citizens basic needs.

As I puzzle over the Tea Party madness boiling the brains of excitable people, I think of Irma, our weekly luxury and savior who helps clean our house each week (it used to take us the entire weekend to do it ourselves, and she can whip through in five or six hours). Irma told me this morning she cancelled her health insurance because it cost almost $500 a month. She could no longer afford it. That’s about what we pay her for her help. In the five years I’ve known her, I don’t think she’s taken a vacation. When she’s sick I tell her not to come, although we pay her every week regardless. A lot of times, she still comes to work even if she doesn’t feel well, perhaps for her own sense of job protection.

“What about the new health care bill that finally passed?” I asked. “Can’t you get something there?” She shook her head. She didn’t know where or how to get that. She doesn’t qualify for medicare.

The woman works hard. She’s a good person. Her father immigrated from the Mexican state of Nayarit, and the whole family works long hours to help support each other and their humble life here. They pay taxes, all of them.

She and other Americans should have better protection; folks like her anchor and contribute to this society. If the Tea Bagger soccer mom has her way, Irma will lose her only hope for insurance, whenever and wherever and however that kicks in. And the soccer mom can drive off into the sunset in her giant SUV, thankful that she has successfully fought off what she thinks is communism.