Mysterious Rocks

March 9th, 2011

Have you heard of the sliding rocks of Racetrack Playa?

Racetrack Playa is a desert-looking place (apparently, a dry lake bed) that is littered with rocks.

The mystery is that these rocks move across the playa… seemingly on their own.

There are theories that the rocks move from wind, or ice, or animals. Go to the Wikipedia or geology.com articles for more information. (Wikipedia’s article is titled a more poetic “sailing stones”.)

I find the story fascinating: boulders moving across a dry, deserted lake bed seemingly on their own. And no one knows how it happens. The first part of the story makes it interesting. The second, that it’s unexplained, makes it really interesting.

My guess is that it’s the wind, maybe a combination of wind and ice, that makes the boulders move.

But I really don’t want people to figure it out for sure. I like that it’s unknown, because it allows for uncertainty and possibility.

Here’s to mysterious, sailing rocks!

 

 

 

Seeing Color

March 5th, 2011

First, go to ted.com to watch Beau Lotto demonstrate how our perception of color depends on the surroundings.

Lotto’s his first illusion still dupes me, even though I know the answer now. I just can’t force my brain to perceive the “objective” truth. While we may fool ourselves into thinking we perceive the world as it is, Lotto’s illusions demonstrate how dependent we are on context to identify and distinguish color. In fact, Lotto suggests that humans’ ability to perceive color is a function of evolution. Seeing color became a means of recognizing and identifying predators before they made us prey.

You can see more of Lotto’s work at his lab, Lotto Lab.

Second, after looking at Lotto’s work, google Johannes Itten with the Google Images search function.

There you’ll find examples of Itten’s work on color. Itten was part of the Bauhaus movement and for a while taught the preliminary course at the Bauhaus school. He is famous for his paintings of simple geometric shapes that how colors interact. (Go here for Wikipedia’s article on Itten).

Finally, visit the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent exhibit of Vasily Kandinsky’s work as part of the Bauhaus movement. Or, if you’re not in the big apple right now, visit the Guggenheim’s Kandinsky webpage.

Whereas Lotto demonstrates some of the science of color and Itten explores color perception as it relates to artistic expression, Kandinsky, while scientfic and methodical as well, simply celebrates color.

His use of color is phenomenal. The colors are often bold, vibrant, and rich, and the geometric shapes, lines, and squiggles in many of his painting bring a balance that is breathtaking. I am surprised how a painting that could simply be bright and busy is moving, profound, and peaceful. Kandinsky is a master.

Lighting the Stars of Your Universe

January 3rd, 2011

I believe that every time I choose… love, integrity, compassion, kindness…

Every time I choose to be true to myself…

I’ve added another star to my universe.

Another star that helps guide me on dim, cold, and windy nights of the soul.

Moreover,

I’ve adjusted my expectations.

I no longer expect to walk clear through the night.

Instead,

I hope to walk far enough to hang another star,

to expand my awareness and compassion just a little bit more,

before I turn aside in fear or anger or impatience.

Thus,

slowly and bit by bit,

I light my universe.

Kind Regards for the New Year

January 1st, 2011

In commemoration of the new year, I’d like to direct you to Radiolab’s presentation of Will Hoffman’s “Moments“.

May you enjoy the moments of your life, this year and all the years to come.

The Way We Were

December 30th, 2010

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.”

Hesiod, 8th century BCE

Did you ever notice how much better things were, how much nicer people used to be, how much simpler things were in the past?

John Oliver of The Daily Show conducts an excellent investigation of how much “better” things were, before. His conclusion at the end, that the television persona in question are actually memorializing their childhood understanding of the world, is pretty spot-on, too.

I remember watching a television show about Pompeii when I was a teenager. I was stunned when the narrator translated some of the graffiti on the walls of the city. Until that point, I had unknowingly succombed* to the brain-washing that things were “better” before, that people were nice, gentler, and more refined. There was no graffiti in my imagined ancient world.

But here were people from centuries ago who were nasty, spiteful, and probably litterers to boot.

I wonder why we have such a desire to wax nostalgic about the past.

After all, the 1950’s, perhaps one of the most nostalgized (not a real word) eras of American history, was a terrible time for most people. It was a time of fear and McCarthyism, a time when folks who weren’t white males were routinely and systematically denied civil and human rights.

The 1950’s were not a shining moment in American history. Yet it’s regularly mythologized into an era of domestic peace (ignore bomb shelters and church bombs) and prosperity (ignore unemployment and underemployment among people of color and white women).

We yearn for the good old days, without wondering if they actually were good, and for whom.

* Of course, that’s the definition of “brain-washing”, isn’t it, unknowingly succombing to a way of thinking.

Kindness and Little White Lies

December 25th, 2010

I subscribe to the point of view that one oughtn’t lie.

Honesty is important: dissembling breaks down communication and trust since you don’t know what you can count on.

Given how strongly I feel about telling the truth, I was surprised when I didn’t have any problems with the “little white lie” of The Bus Stop, a brilliant Radiolab program about an old folks home in Germany.

The Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf, Germany, is home to a number of residents with Alzheimer’s and dementia. A difficulty in caring for folks with Alzheimer’s and dementia is that they’ll often slip into a different reality, thinking they must go home to their mother, go to work, go meet friends or family, not recognizing that they now live in a nursing home. In these episodes these folks can be so convinced of their reality that it can be extremely difficult to dissuade them from taking actions that can be disorienting or even harmful.

For example, they might wander to their old neighborhood and find someone in their former home. Or they could venture into snow storms with little clothing as did the producer’s grandfather.

Imagine if you were going about your day, getting ready for work, when someone you don’t recognize suddenly appeared at your side and told you that you mustn’t go to work, that you haven’t worked in thirty years, and that you must stay in strange, unfamiliar surroundings. You might well get upset and wonder who this person thought they were. Or you might get really scared. Were you being kidnapped? Generally, our first response to danger or fear is to want to be close to your loved ones. Yet this person is trying to keep you from your loved ones and your known associates. This could be extremely distressing. I know I’d be upset.

The staff at the Benrath Senior Center found that restraining residents or arguing with them about their lives were unsuccessful coping strategies. Instead, they tried something novel.

They installed a bus stop outside their building: a bus stop that went no where. The idea’s proponent, Franz-Josef Göbel, reasoned that when residents become deluded, they often want to travel somewhere. He thought of installing a bus stop because it’s a common starting point for any trip.

Now, when a resident is convinced that they must go somewhere or meet someone, the staff at the senior center agree that it’s important and suggest that the resident go to the bus stop to wait for the bus. While waiting for the bus, the resident calms down. A staff member comes to sit with them and eventually suggests they go back inside, perhaps for a cup of tea. The residents return to the senior center in a more peaceful state of mind.

Yet, as one of the commentators in the program observed, it’s a lie. The bus stop is a lie, since no bus will ever arrive.

I wonder, though, is it a lie?

For there to be a lie, there first must be a shared understanding of truth. But in this case, the residents and the staff sometimes have wildly divergent perceptions of truth and reality. It’s already been the senior center’s experience that denying the residents’ deluded experience is not a successful strategy. In the Radiolab program, one staff member said that sometimes even the police needed to be called in order to restrain a deluded resident. This cannot be an ideal outcome.

In this context, the bus stop, instead of facilitating a transition from one physical place to another physical place, facilitates a transition from one state of mind to another. In essence, the bus stop is a place of transition, and the Benrath Senior Center has developed a beautiful way to meet people where they are and gently, gently bring them back into the present.

Hospitality: Turning Water into Wine

November 9th, 2010

Jesus went with his mother and disciples to a wedding in Cana. Noticing the host had run out of wine, Jesus’ mother asked him to help out. Jesus answered, “I’m busy right now, Mom.” But his mother knew her son well and knew he’d help if she got things started. She gathered a few servants and told them to go to Jesus and follow his instructions.

When the servants reached Jesus, they said, “Your mother sent us to you.” Jesus looked over at his mother and smiled. He excused himself from the conversation he’d been engaged in and asked the servants to fill jars with water.

Following Jesus’ instruction, they took the water-filled jars to the chief steward. Yet, when the chief steward drank from the jars, he tasted wine. “Why did you save the best wine for last?” the steward asked the bridegroom, who had no answer.

And thus the party, and the reputation of the host, was saved.

This story, from the Gospel of John in the New Testament of the Christian Bible, is presented as the first miracle Jesus performed. According to Wikipedia, it serves as the basis for arguing that God approves of marriage and celebration (and, presumably, drinking wine). Additionally, this parable is sometimes studied because it highlights Jesus’ mother’s influence on her son. I’d like to look at this parable in a different light, however.

Isn’t it interesting that the first miracle Jesus is said to perform is one that essentially serves to preserve the reputation of the host of a wedding celebration? Instead of the first miracle being the one of the loaves and fishes or of raising Lazarus from the dead, it’s saving a party. It’s as if this is the Emily Post period in Jesus’ life.

On the other hand, if you consider the story further, beyond the fact that Jesus was ipso facto blessing the celebration, he was also supporting the art of hospitality. On its surface, hospitality is offering one’s home as a sanctuary and place of repose to a guest. In some parts of the world where the environment is severe and life-threatening, such as in the Sahara desert, deep and beautiful traditions of hospitality have developed. (One would be hard-pressed to find a more hospitable culture than the Arab culture, for example.)

If one extends the metaphor of hospitality beyond its address of physical needs (food, drink, rest), however, one can consider hospitality as a spiritual practice, too. This is corroborated by Jesus’ statement, “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in (Matthew 25:35).” In this statement, Jesus enjoins his followers to consider all those in need as himself and thus to attend to their needs. You can look at this as a call to perform acts of charity, but I have a feeling a deeper reading of the story is not so much how many charitable actions one takes as what is the spirit in which one takes those actions. If one cultivates a spirit of hospitality in one’s heart, then one’s actions perforce will follow.

I think it’s also significant that Jesus’ purported first miracle was domestic and celebratory. At a wedding feast, where family and friends were happily gathered, Jesus performed a miracle that kept the party going. Sometimes the kindest acts are the everyday ones that keep life moving along merrily.

Kindness and hospitality are the miracles at the heart of the story of turning water into wine. Our everyday lives offer everyday opportunities to cultivate loving kindness. As we are hospitable to others, friends and strangers alike, we too turn the water of our everyday lives into a richer spiritual practice, the “best wine” of love.

You, me, termites, and naked mole rats

October 15th, 2010

Quote of the day, from an article about simplifying one’s lifestyle:

Only termites, naked mole rats and certain insects like ants and bees construct social networks as complex as those of human beings. In that elite little club, humans are the only ones who shop.

From http://finance.yahoo.com/family-home/article/110275/but-will-it-make-you-happy on Monday, August 9, 2010, and Friday, October 15, 2010.

Deconstructing the Garden of Eden

October 11th, 2010

God makes Adam and Eve, and they live in a garden in Eden.

They may eat of all the trees save one, the fruit of which harbors the knowledge of good and evil.

The snake convinces Eve to try the fruit of the tree.

She does, and in turn convinces Adam to try some, too.

He does, and their eyes were opened to the world around them, also noticing for the first time that they were naked.

God comes along and calls for them, but Adam and Eve hide in shame.

When God discovers they have eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he sends them from the garden and from Eden, never to return.

The Genesis story was one of many creation stories popular at the time it was recorded. It was not necessarily the most popular, but was chosen for who-knows-what reasons. Rather than focus on the historical context of the selection of this particular creation story for the Book of Genesis, I’m more interested in examining this story in terms of its archetypes.

Genesis has four main characters: father, mother, daughter, son. God is the father; Eve, the daughter; and, Adam, the son. But who is the mother? The serpent.

Original creation stories featured a goddess who created the world. As the storyline evolved, a son was added. Eventually, the son became consort, and finally the male god was kept and the female goddess was dropped from the creation story altogether in many parts of the world. However, one of the most common symbols of the goddess throughout the world was the snake. Therefore in this analysis, we’re going to say that the snake is the archetypal mother.

So, four main characters: mother, father, son, daughter. In the beginning of the story, they all live happily together in Eden, in a lovely garden. By the end of the story, the father tells the children they must leave the garden to make their own way in the world. What happened? Why would the mother encourage the children to eat of the forbidden fruit? Why would the father forbid the fruit in the first place? What is Eden?

What if Eden were representative of… childhood? What if Eden represents a time when father and mother take care of daughter and son? What if forbidding them from eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil is simply a way to protect the children from things they don’t really need to know about so long as they are children?

After all, many parents decide the type of television and movies their children may see, in the belief that some things, despite being part of the “real” world, do not need to be part of their children’s understanding of the world at that time. There is an understanding that at some point the children will need to face the world as it is, without the protections of youth and ignorance/innocence. But in the meantime, when they are young, children benefit from a worldview that protects them against the many variations of ill we humans do to one another.

If this is the case, then the father’s injunction against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil has a good reason. It’s not time yet for the children to grow up. What, then, of the mother encouraging the daughter to eat of the forbidden fruit?

Really, the first step on the road to eating the forbidden fruit was not the snake’s encouragement, it was the fact that the daughter approached the tree at all. The act of approaching the tree demonstrated the daughter’s developing curiosity about the world around her and a nascent desire to understand the world on her own terms and not just as defined by her parents.

The mother, knowing that this time would come, occasionally monitors the tree to see if her children are starting to explore it. She sees her daughter approach and realized the time has come for her to grow up and begin to make decisions for herself.

“Go on, try it,” the snake says.

“But daddy says we aren’t supposed to,” the daughter says even as she reaches up for a fruit.

“Your father is just trying to protect you, but it’s time you stand on your own two feet, beloved.”

The daughter eats of the fruit, looks around, and the world is different. She’s developing her own sense of right and wrong and her own understanding of the world, based upon the knowledge she gains of herself and of the world. She’s growing up.

“Look, brother ! Look at this!” the daughter calls to her brother.

“Hey, sis. Whoa, you’re not supposed to eat that, dad said.”

“I know, but it’s really cool. You ought to try it.”

“I don’t know…”

“Come on, one bite won’t hurt you.”

And the son eats the fruit and the world changes for him, too. But he’s not so happy about it because he thinks maybe it was better when he was a kid and maybe he doesn’t want to grow up just yet. Also, he’s mad because he didn’t think of it first.

“Hey, I didn’t want this! Why’d make me eat it?” yells the son.

“I didn’t make you eat it; I just gave it to you.  You ate it!” the daughter yells back.

“Kids! Settle down!” says the snake.

Then the dad comes along. What’s all this ruckus? Oh… you ate from the tree. And he gets sad, because he knows his son and daughter are children no longer. He won’t be able to protect them from life’s ups and downs. He looks at his wife the snake and says, “Well, we knew this day was coming.” Then he addresses his children, “Kids, you’re growing up now. Your mother and I will always love you and support you, but it’s time for you to make your own way in the world.”

So the son and daughter leave home to learn about the world on their own and to come to terms with it in their own ways.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And that’s Eden. A place where you used to live, when life was simpler. A place you miss, perhaps. Or perhaps not.

N.B. Since this is an archetypal reading of the Garden of Eden, realize that each persona (mother, father, son, daughter) can represent an aspect of one’s personality. Meaning, this story isn’t essentialist and doesn’t propose that only girls are naturally curious and only boys naturally feckless. Rather, we all have aspects of our personality that are protector, encourager, adventurous, and cautious.

Shy googol

September 8th, 2010

I remember being in third grade when my older brother told me what a “googol” is.

“It’s a number. A googol is a ‘1’ with a hundred zeroes after it.”

A hundred zeroes! That’s so many!

“A kid thought of the name,” my brother continued. “His dad or someone wanted a name for this number, and this kid suggested ‘googol’, so it stuck.”

A kid named a number?!?

First of all, it had never occurred to me that you could name a number. Numbers just were. How could you name something that already existed?

Second, a kid named a number, and now other people, grown-up people, were using that name? That was amazing, too.

But best of all was that my brother had let me in on a secret. Few people knew about the number with the funny name. Few people knew that a kid had named a number. Thinking about a googol was like savoring a secret, and it gave me a glimpse of mathematics beyond the arithmetic and basic algebra I was learning at the time.

This, of course, took place before the 1990’s.

Now “google” is a noun, a verb, a word that refers to the number googol as part of its history. Shy googol, named in 1938 and for decades residing in the half-light of quasi-fame as a mathematical anecdote, now has an upstart cousin who has usurped the name and made it into a household world.

Of course, Google tips its hat to its family of origin by having so many “o’s” in its name on its search results page, a visual nod to the hundred zeroes in a googol. Yet one wonders about googol. The meaning of “Google” rings so loudly when one contemplates “googol” that we risk losing a charming story about an inspirational number.