Friday, January 7, 2022

A Matter of Scale

"Interestingly enough, the total number of neurons in the human brain falls in the same ballpark of the number of galaxies in the observable universe."

"The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks"

Photo Collage by Francesco Izzo.

Your life’s memories could, in principle, be stored in the universe’s structure.

You can read the full article on the Nautilus website. Coauthored by a neurosurgeon and an astrophysicist, it's a great example of the power of interdisciplinary thinking.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Desmond Tutu: 1931 - 2021


I had the great good fortune to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at Johns Hopkins University in 1992. my junior year of high school, just as apartheid was coming to an end. The mood was triumphant and aspirational. I have to say that I remember my conversation with the cute college student sitting next to me more vividly than the particulars of the speech. What stands out most after all these years was Tutu's statement that after decades of being a pariah state, South Africa now had the opportunity to serve as a model for racial justice and reconciliation.

Judging by the obituaries and editorials accompanying Tutu's passing, he succeeded in this goal. It's important to remember that you don't have to achieve perfection to serve as an example. Whether you are an individual, an organization, a faith community, or a nation state, we all exist with flaws, even while we are doing our best work. I am sure this is true of every church I visited and every person I interviewed. I still learned from the journey. I hope we can all keep learning.

Table Mountain lit up in purple to honour the memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Cape Town. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty

Table Mountain lit up in purple to honour the memory of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Cape Town. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

About Deism

Religion is a practice. Belief is a frame of mind. 

I believe that there is a conscious and compassionate force beyond the scope of human rational inquiry at work in our daily lives. This belief is based mostly on personal experience, and on the firsthand accounts of others. I choose not to further define this Higher Power because whatever attributes I assign would almost certainly be wrong. My definition of deism is less passive than that of the 18th Century Enlightenment. It seems most likely to me that God is a meta layer of reality, both nervous system and DNA, a manifestation of conscious information. Not a watchmaker, but rather the gears, the numbers, the hands, the wearer, the manufacturer, and the construct of 4D spacetime itself.

Photo taken 12.28.2021.

Of course, our reality could also be a simulation. In theory, the odds that we are inhabiting a simulation are fifty-fifty. Elon Musk has advocated for this theory. It would certainly explain few things.

But this isn't a "just so" story. I'm not claiming any authority or special revelation.

And no, I don't know what happens after we die.

In 2015 I did have something happen to me that cannot be explained by science. It wasn't a coincidence. It wasn't an answered prayer. It had both symbolic and personal relevance. There was another witness. We took a picture with my camera phone.

The picture wouldn't convince you if I showed you, though. You could just say that we made the whole thing up. Anyway, I'm not trying to convert anyone. 

I don't have any particular agenda, not at this point in my life.

Be a good person. Live according to your conscience. Know that fear is largely imaginary, a pernicious delusion. Love is real but not always easy to find. Distrust simple answers and the wisdom of crowds.

 That is my practice. That is how I try to live my life.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

When Your Prayer Plant Blooms

I wasn't going to do a holiday card this year, but yesterday my Maranta saw fit to bloom. I did not know they did that.

Maranta, or "Prayer Plant"

Even in this time of light in darkness, we still see signs of growth and life. Wishing you a blessed and joyful holiday season!

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Fantastic Mr. Fox

My great aunt, Fairlie Nicodemus, passed away quite suddenly today at the age of 101. She had a remarkable life as one of the first female psychotherapists in the United States. You can find her memoir here. Proceeds will be donated to the Audubon Society.

She was only in a nursing home for the last few months of her life. Her family worked tirelessly to keep her at home as long as was possible, and find her care after she could no longer care for herself. 

I happened across Fantastic Mr. Fox last week on streaming video. It's great fun, if you don't mind twee. Never mind that my entire extended family often resembles the cast of a Wes Anderson movie; my first thought after watching was that Great Aunt Fairlie would love it.  She had a deep connection to all wildlife, but especially foxes. 

I remember her singing "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night" and strumming guitar at the family farm on Long Island. Based on Roald Dahl's book, the film is a 90-minute riff on the same archetypal story.

Her hearing and vision remained quite good, and while she had no short term memory, she could carry on a conversation and follow the plots of books and video. For a while she had taken to conversing in French when my aunt came to visit. This became a problem, because she was not always aware which language she was speaking in, and none of the nursing home staff knew French.

I spoke to my parents about showing her the movie on a tablet or one of the nursing home TVs next time they visited, and they were enthusiastic. They were researching what streaming video service they could hook up to their Android tablet. That was last Thursday.

I got the news yesterday that her health was failing fast. She was experiencing severe dehydration from a bacterial infection known as C. diff, and was agitated and incoherent as a result. I reassured my aunt that she would become calm again once the IV restored her fluids and electrolytes, but it took an extra eight hours and several calls from family to find a doctor who could prescribe morphine. She was peaceful at the end, and recognized her nephew and grand-niece.

My relatives' take on the care at the facility was that the nursing staff was dedicated, but overwhelmed. Upstate New York is Trump country, and anti-vax sentiment is prevalent. As a result, the nursing home was operating with half their normal staff. They simply could not find vaccinated people to fill the jobs. The result was a situation close to triage. It's true their everybody has their time, but my great aunt's final weeks were filled with a lot of needless suffering and at the very end, extreme pain. This happened as a direct result of fearmongering, ignorance, and misinformation. 

People need to understand that refusing vaccination puts lives at risk—both directly from COVID and indirectly, as above. Take time to engage and educate when you can.

Fairlie had a good life and a long life. I just wish she had gotten to stick around a bit longer and see that movie. She would have enjoyed it.

* * *

I couldn't decide which was the best version of this folk song out of the many recordings available. Of course, nobody plays it like my aunt.

Bob Shane does a nice rendition, if you are partial to fiddle. Laura Veirs actually looks a bit like my aunt did when she was young, so that was the tiebreaker.

The fox went out on a chilly night,
He prayed for the moon to give him light,
For he'd many a mile to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o,
He'd many a mile to go that night,
Before he reached the town-o.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Reasons Why

This month was a good one for this blog. Our traffic quadrupled from the previous two months. I've been encouraged to post more and to share the site with more people as a result. I have to assume most of that is bots. All the same, for a book that came out seven years ago with no influencers, social media, or advertisers in support of it, I'm not complaining.

Have you visited recently? If you found any of the content meaningful, I would love to hear from you.

The year is winding down and I'm trying to arrange my priorities. I know that I will be making time for some sort of creative work in 2022, but I don't know yet what shape that work will take. I had an idea for a new project based on a similar format to this one: illustrated narrative journalism—combining pen-and-ink portraits with personal interviews. This week I shared the potential book topic with two friends in media and publishing. They have been really encouraging.

It's true that I have a lot of mixed emotions about Southern Cross. I didn't write the book as an evangelical tract. I didn't write it to debunk or attack, either. I wrote it for a lot of reasons. Only some of them made it into the final draft.

The reason the book was never a commercial success is simple. I fired my agent. We had different creative visions. Enough said.

Later when I returned to the project, I felt I didn't have the right personal story to make it a success. Not for the original audience. I have a friend who is a Christian writer who married late in life. She is now pregnant with twins, at the age of 48. That's the type of bio that readers are looking for, I presume. 

Life never comes to a tidy happy ending. Elizabeth Gilbert later divorced the man she married in Eat, Pray, Love. (Don't think that made it into the movie.) If I ever return to this idiom, I'd be wary of putting in too many personal details. No need to tempt fate.

One of the most surprising aspects of researching this book were the stories of the supernatural and the miraculous. I didn't seek these out, and didn't include all the stories I was told. All I can say, using John Dominic Crossan's value-neutral terminology, is that a lot of people experience miracles. I don't know why some people have these experiences and others do not. Do I have theories? Of course I do.

But I won't share them here. 

There's no getting around the fact that this project is personal. Such is the nature of first-person narrative, even more so if it's a spiritual memoir. In all honesty, that's probably my biggest reservation.

Friday, November 26, 2021

I Am Not an Apologist

Last I heard, my friend's dad was doing much better. Thanks for those who sent prayers.

Yesterday was quiet and relaxing for me. I celebrated the day off with dim sum and writing. Meant to share a Washington Post article I ran across but needed to find a way around the paywall. This local story and the video below do a good job communicating the same facts.

Plymouth's museums get roughly 1.5 million visitors annually. The Wampanoag museum gets 800 people a year. That's all.

I knew the story of Thanksgiving had been badly whitewashed, but I had no idea that Squanto, the man who taught the Pilgrims to plant corn, had been abducted and sold by the English as a slave four years earlier. Did you? 

When I think about Christianity, the kind I was raised to believe in, I think about liberation theology and social justice, Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. 

I think of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous quote: 

"The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." 

Does any of this make up for the evil done in the name of Christianity? For the genocide of First Nations people, for the Crusades, the pogroms, the Holocaust, for the burning of women as witches?

In my view, no.

That is something that God and Jesus will have to answer for, on Judgment Day.