Thursday, April 15, 2021

Life is Good

Yesterday was my 80th birthday. Not much is different in a year, except COVID variants and vaccines. Otherwise, same old News a year later. How likely is that?

I was watching CBC National News at 10:00 PM yesterday. We probably watched it on my birthday last year and the year before that as well. 

Now go back to the year 1941 on April 14, the day I was born. Back then, if you had guessed, how likely I was to be watching CBC National News at 10:00 PM on my 80th birthday, you would have said not so likely. Back then there was no such thing as TV, and I had maybe a 50% chance of making it to 80. 

Now go back to July, 1940. What then were the chances of me watching CBC National News at 10:00 PM on April 14, 2021. Hard to say, but the germ from which I came was in a race with a hundred million others, and I became improbable winner.

You get the drift. We could go back through 3 billion years of evolution of life on earth and another 10 billion years of stellar evolution since the Big Bang. The probability that the universe would produce Dennis watching CBC National News at 10:00 PM on his 80th birthday was vanishingly small at the beginning. Nobody would have bet on it.

And yet here I am. 

It's a miracle.
I'm a miracle. 
You too. 
Life is improbably good. For a moment I didn't notice.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

I've Been Shot

Just had the Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 vaccine. The needle was so long, I thought it would exit in my arm-pit and wash away the deodorant. But no, I didn't feel more than a little jab and it's all good. Science. Amazing!

Science is the thing. In the early 1970s I became interested in Richard Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, futurist, theorist, and architect. I made this little greenhouse in the picture below along lines he recommended for maximum strength with minimum use of materials. Andrea was impressed.

Fuller was an interesting oddball, author of many books, one of which I attempted to read unsuccessfully. At the time my thinking was linear and logical and his writing was superficially unstructured and confusing. Or, I should say, I didn't understand his method. He returned to the same themes over and over from slightly different angles. He was writing a hologram, and I saw the interference pattern rather than the 3D image it was projecting. It didn't make sense to me.

Now I appear to be imitating Bucky. Looking back at this blog, I see that my own writing is random glimpses of a reality I don't yet understand. Kudos to you if you are reading this. I can assure you that the author doesn't know what he is doing although for some reason he has a will to find words that make his muddy thoughts clearer.

Even that ambivalent motivation reminds me of Fuller. He had an epiphany, by his own account, following a bad patch after the death of his daughter from polio, when life had lost its appeal. He described it in these words:

"...You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others."

He intuited this as a personal message directed to himself. I think it means us too. We belong to the universe. Take care while seeking the best advantage for others. Wear a mask. Get the vaccine. Stay isolated for a while longer. 

And then there will be hugs.

Some Wiki links:

Buckminster Fuller


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Of Showers and Flowers

The rain falls on the just and the unjust, right?  We know that. Dorothy and I were out for a walk one day and the sky spilled all over us ten minutes away from home. We are the just and the unjust, Dorothy and I. Sometimes things happen; don't spend too long looking for a reason.

On the other hand, sometimes you have a choice. I once confided in my doctor that I was depressed. (I'm not depressed just now, and not looking for sympathy.) Depression is one of those things that comes on like rain. Weather and mood are both chaotic systems with multiple causes, some beyond control. Depression falls on the just and unjust too; well, on the unjust for sure; Dorothy can speak for herself. Anyway, the doctor pointed out that a few of the causes of depression are within control, and tweaking one or more of those things may be enough to tip the emotional chaos back into stability and contentment. He suggested that I should get out of bed in the morning and take a shower and see what happened. "Some heavy New-Age advice," thought I. Well, I began getting out of bed and taking showers, and kept it up. As it happened, I am no longer depressed. I was also on meds for six months, but that's not the point right now. Could be that I am off meds because I get out of bed and take a shower.

After a few years, debedding and showering became routine, so I added an additional element to keep things fresh as a spring garden. At this point, you should Google "benefits of a cold shower" and see what I saw: there are anywhere from five to sixteen reasons (depending on your expert) to finish up your shower with the hot water turned off and the cold on full. 

Flowers prefer it cold. Why not people?

You haven't tried it? You don't know what you're missing. No, I mean you actually cannot imagine what you are missing. Depression is not an option. Enough said. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

We Should Be So Wise

Authors don't generally comment on their own writing. I'm more amateur than author, so I will do it to make a point. The point is that meaning is elusive. 

When I wrote the previous piece entitled "No Worries", I had something in mind:
    Being thoughtful is better than the alternative.
While the story was writing itself, I looked on as other ideas began to condense around that theme.
    Acting reasonably is hard work.
    There is uncertainty producing anxiety at every stage.
    Avoiding effort and anxiety may be risky.

If you read the story as a piece of whimsy, you wouldn't get my meaning. Taken literally, it seemed to say:
    Being reasonable is not worth the effort or the angst. Stop worrying. 
    Trust your gut and take your chances.
    God has your back. 

I was writing ironically. I meant the opposite.
    Gather reliable evidence.
    Be on guard against biased intuition and easy answers to the wrong questions.
    Make the effort to plan and act reasonably, pay the emotional cost, and stay safe.
That is what humans do that frogs can't. I was quite serious. 

Reading such a dreary sermon wouldn't be much fun. Therefore I made fun of being frog-brained and trusted the reader to draw the right conclusion.

But there is more. Looking back at the story and expanding my perspective, I can see at least one additional layer of meaning, and there are probably others. Because we make decisions based on incomplete information and fallible understanding, the future remains uncertain whatever we do. Our best motivated efforts can result in unforeseen disaster. Who would have guessed that ordinary people trying to live long and prosper would one day be the cause of climate change and extinction of species? On one level, we wonder if we are smart enough to cross the road safely. Having got across with our children and cousins and 8 billion friends, we ask whether we can survive being so smart

When we think in these terms, the frog seems to have an advantage. It compensates for its tiny cerebrum, which does a poor job of keeping it safe, by participating without anxiety in a mindless cycle of regeneration and death while stabilizing rather than distressing the planet

We should be so wise.

Friday, March 19, 2021

No Worries

 Once upon a time I was heading home on a country road and came to an intersection facing a red light. There I waited patiently as required by law. After about three minutes I was thinking that it couldn't take much longer to change green and my foot was getting heavy over the accelerator. After five minutes I began speculating about what was wrong with the light: maybe a power surge had addled the electronics, maybe there was a sensor in the pavement that was not working, or maybe there was a dirty cop hiding around the corner playing tricks with a remote switch so he could make his quota of tickets for the day. At six minutes with no cars or police in sight, my good-boy persona morphed into my impatient bad-boy and I crossed against the red. You will be sorry to hear that I didn't get a ticket, although I certainly deserved one. I like that ending. In an alternate version of the story, the good boy is still there, a pile of bones behind the wheel waiting righteously for the light to change.

This is what it's like to be human. There are circumstances that converge to put us in an ambiguous situation. We have options. We imagine alternatives and possible outcomes which we evaluate to decide on a course of action. Unsure of what to do, we try our best to nudge events the way we would like to see them go. Then we get consequences, which may not be exactly what we intended. The whole process generates anxiety. Who needs it? Who would choose to be human?

Frogs do things differently. I recall experiments on frogs in second year biology intended to demonstrate the functions of different parts of their simple brains. We accomplished this by depriving them of bits of their brains and then stimulating them. After the cerebrum was removed, a frog was typically not as interested in the experiment as we students were. 

We learned that frogs make rudimentary choices using the cerebrum, which in a frog is rather small. Frogs are not brilliant. I suspect that frogs don't check the lights before they cross the road even if their cerebrum is functioning normally, and as a result sometimes they get squashed. However, I hypothesize that they don't suffer anxiety in the process, and that aspect of being a frog is rather good. We could check their pulse to be sure. On the other hand, if I were a frog, whatever my IQ, I would avoid a human in a lab coat carrying a stethoscope and waiting on the other side of the road. You know those humans. To provide a control for the experiment, they would want you to cross the road again without a cerebrum.

As for us humans, the burden of consciousness leaves us with frog envy. Wouldn't it be nice to unload our anxiety, just ignore the warnings and trust our luck or magic or Mummy or the government or the experts or God? 

Who needs an enormous anxious cerebrum turning little problems into bigger ones? Give me a nice froggie brain. No worries.

Next: We Should Be So Wise

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Do Something

 Last week two random events came begging for meaning. 

1) To pass the time at lunch one day, we were listening to an audiobook. Somehow the song "Deep Purple" came up in the story. I recognized it immediately, "When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls". It's a song Dad used to play. I learned it myself over sixty years ago and have not played it since.

2) One night I had a dream,  a familiar teacher's nightmare of the sort where I am late for class and things keep getting in the way so the kids are going to trash the classroom before I get there. I know where the dream originates. I spent most of my days as a teacher having important things to do, which over the years altered the structure of my brain. Now I have nothing important to do, so the old think-engine is spinning its wheels going nowhere.

Well, not quite nowhere. Here I am writing this blog. which is not entirely meaningless. 

I wonder if Deep Purple is still within reach for someone who hasn't practiced at all for the last year because he has been so busy taking naps. Curious, I dug out the sheet music from the stack of golden oldies: Nola, In a Mist, Why do Fools Fall in Love, The Doll Dance, The Colonel Bogie March, White Christmas. Found it at the bottom of the pile. I played it through once, but the notes were not there under my fingers. They weren't easy on the old eyes either. So I scanned it into my scrolling music software and set up the computer on the piano. Three or four more runs through and the muscle memory is kicking in. Fun. In another few months if I keep at it I might be able to play this. 

When I need a project, any project will do as long as it's my choice and it has a chance of succeeding. My motto is "do something rather than nothing." If you succeed, good. If it doesn't work out, at least you know one thing you don't want to do next time you are at loose ends. Either way is better than another nightmare.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Get My Meaning?

Over the past five years writing this blog I haven't had any specific goal in mind. It's just an old guy's brain doing what brains do. One thing they do is figure out what things mean. But if there are no such problems to solve, they make up random stuff like the moving patterns your visual cortex generates just before you fall asleep in the dark. That receding star field (or whatever plotless movie is playing) has no meaning. Meaning requires intention, and if I was intending something, I wouldn't be going to sleep. Right now, just after lunch, I am almost asleep. This is my brain in neutral, generating meaningless patterns. Zzzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzz. Zzzzzzzzz.

OK, now I'm awake. While I was asleep, the old bean just kept on making up nonsense. I dreamed I was at an outdoor market where a vendor was selling chestnuts, the edible kind, American chestnuts not horse chestnuts. I made the mistake of asking for a bag full before checking the price. (I can tell that was nonsense because I have never eaten a chestnut, don't care if I ever do, and wouldn't buy them unless they were the only food in sight and I was starving.) After I had them in my hand and had eaten one, I saw that they were priced at $1000. The vendor was surprised to see me eat one. He explained that this variety of chestnut was rare and he was selling them as heritage seed. Rather than admit I had made a foolish mistake, I offered my credit card as though nothing were amiss. Crazy dream. Nonsense, right? What was I saying about random thoughts before I drifted off?

Now that I am awake, I have the delusion that there might be something meaningful in the dream, even though it was unintentional. How do we get from arbitrary randomness to intention and thence to meaning? Well, we make it up, don't we !

To make it easy, here's what the dream could mean. Pick one or more of these options or add your own in the comment section below.
(a) Dennis thinks way too much about food.
(b) Dennis is not careful how he spends money.
(c) Dennis would pay anything to avoid looking foolish.
(d) The value of an object is all in one's head, so decide what you are willing to pay and stick to it.
(e) Circumstances can alter the value of things.
(f)  Dennis had writer's block and is trying way too hard to write a piece for his blog.

The truth is actually (f) but (e) is calling me. It hints at an ending to the dream, and the problem with dreams is they almost never have satisfactory endings. Endings are the products of the wakeful, intentional mind. Here is a possible ending which is unfolding in imagination as I write, wide awake and intentional.

I took the remaining chestnuts home and presented them to Dorothy a little sheepishly because I had spent the grocery budget for the month and we were going to survive on stone soup until the next payday. Being a wise wife and a thoughtful mother, she turned the purchase into a teachable moment. Supper that night was a surprisingly tasty potato soup. and for dessert, chestnuts dipped in chocolate sauce. She explained to the kids that this was going to be the best dessert ever because each chestnut cost $100. So they had a choice; they could eat them or plant them and see what came up. The kids chose to eat the chocolate sauce and plant the chestnuts. After supper we all went for a walk along the trail and planted chestnuts as we went. 

Years passed, kids grew up, chestnuts were forgotten, and climate change wreaked havoc with agriculture. Stone soup was looking like a feast for many people, and they would have been happy to add a potato if they could get one. Biologists were looking for alternative crops that would survive the new normal and had turned to chestnuts as a potential super-food. There was one catch. The edible American chestnut was nearly extinct because of its susceptibility to fungal blight. Watching The Nature of Things one night, Dennis saw the chestnut documentary and thought back to his ill-advised purchase and the planting trek that had followed that skimpy supper so long ago. Came the weekend, he and Dorothy took the grandkids on that same walk to see what had come from the thousand dollar nuts. What they found would eventually make them celebrities. One of the chestnut trees had thrived, apparently a blight resistant mutant. Delighted and excited, they collected all the nuts they could find and took them to the chestnut research station at the University of Guelph. 

To make a long story a bit longer, by the time there were great-grandchildren dealing with climate change, chestnuts were a staple part of their diet, used in everything from soup to burgers, and Great-grandpa Dennis had become a legend.

There, that's how nonsense becomes intention becomes meaning. Get my meaning? Tell me about it.