Surprise!

I look out my window this morning and see the bare tree branches quivering in a slight breeze. A bird’s shadow breaks across and then the bird itself appears. Within that brief moment of awareness my brain informed me of something irregular to the pattern (the shadow) which allowed my perception to anticipate what followed; the sighting the bird itself, then quickly incorporating that feathered creature into my visual field. If I wasn’t open to it I wouldn’t realize that a surprise happened. Typically, because of the stretch of time I have spent on this planet, I would just automatically build it into my pre-organized familiarity. It would just “sort of happen” and I would move on the more important stuff. As if that event itself wasn’t really important. This morning that bird really happened.
 
 We lose the ability to be surprised as we age. And that’s not too surprising either. The long march of accumulated experience falls into pattern and becomes apparently predictable as time passes. Even novel interjections are de-mystified and flattened by this expectation of the ordinary.
 
 
Maybe this ability to be surprised is worth reconsidering. Maybe over time our natural astonishment about life needs to be augmented by a self-generated one. It seems that’s why bird watching is so engrossing. We allow ourselves an opportunity to set aside the knowledge that this is all familiar and open up to a different sense: All is Unexpected! Part of birding is seeing that rare bird of course. But in every bird-walk our joy in fulfilled when the stillness of the woods becomes animated. But first we must be open. Just because we opened our eyes by separating our eyelids doesn’t mean our eyes are open.
 
Assessment and categorization are automatic habits in us that proceed from surprise. We both desire surprise and also dispense with it as quickly as possible. Something strange is going on. When we get in “naturing mode” by heading out to the woods, by quieting ourselves, by letting our eyes dilate slightly, we beg for surprise. But just as quickly as it happens, as the bird finally appears, we change into the organizer of experience, we say “That’s a House Finch.” Because not to do this would be not to close the circle. But to close a circle is not to end our path around it. I’ve started thinking of this circle as the circle of effort and awe.
 
There are two goals in experience; to gain understanding through effort and to increase our awareness through awe. The trick is to keep our brain ready to move. Proceeding all too quickly from surprise into analysis is just the way we are wired. Survival relies on bringing the unexpected into comprehension, mainly to evaluate threat or to recognize possible reward.
 
Moving the other way takes practice. Disengaging ourselves from the identifying labels that we paste on experience, realizing that we have only managed to brush up against a small part of the surface of what we can know about something, turns us back towards awe. With practice we can remember the limitations that our categorizations impose. The sense of novelty is dependent on us as much as on fresh sensation. The deeper investigation of life relies on reanimating this cycle of wonder.
 
 

 

 

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Guiding Us To a New Future

After suffering repeated school shootings we have arrived at a point where the students themselves have taken the lead. They are showing how it’s done. They are confronting their elders with their impotency. They know the score. The adults are too scared, or too complacent, or just too burnt out to do anything about it. The future belongs to those with vision and energy. The future belongs to those who are oblivious to the fact that it can’t be done.

Our state governor (Bevin) gets a mike in front of him and makes his case for how this is a cultural problem, not a gun problem. He wants to isolate guns away from any discussion of the problem and shift the focus to the influence of video games, movies and music. In his view these influences are the major culprits. He has his personal reasons for doing that I’m sure. But his political reasons are also transparent. He says we wouldn’t have these impressionable youths gunning down their peers if they weren’t crucially swayed by the entertainment industry (hint: full of elite liberals). The breakdown in family structure and the general lack of moral tone gets the hammer next (hint #2: Godless liberalism causes that too). But not guns (hint #3: gun control is political anathema to his party). Because this is not a gun problem. Give him points for not budging from the party line.

But guns are involved here in some manner, right? His general point about cultural issues is valid but by refusing to talk about guns themselves he loses the plot. Yes, it is a culture problem. But no, the main element in that culture problem is not something like a gory video game. I’ll put this in caps here to make this clear: We Have a Gun Culture Problem. The argument “it’s not a gun problem” is the go-to rebuttal. The gun is inanimate. The gun has been with us for many years. Gun are part of our American identity. Guns need to be out there so that guns can be in the hands of the good guys.

Yes to all of that. But here is what his behavioral counter argument is missing: We Have a Gun Culture Problem.

To discuss the cultural issues mentioned above while keeping guns in some bubble of isolation is comforting if you own guns and if your worry is that they will be taken away. But it is also being willfully blind to what America is. We are a gun loving nation. All of the other things including these horrific killings draw their power this basic fact.

We sanction guns. We glorify guns. We worship guns. We fetishize guns.

We allow this pervasive and unquestioned identification with gun culture to win the day. In the face of an apparent pattern of killings in schools, instead of looking at the elements of this pattern; with the same type of weapon, by someone who forms an identity and sense of power through gun culture, because of a lack of community outreach that recognizes inordinate gun fascination, or because he can easily obtain the gun he shouldn’t have due to lack of uniform regulation, we shift the focus away. We minimize the part that guns themselves play in this pattern and compartmentalize them. We say: “It’s not a gun problem.”

As if any aberrant behavior was not bound up with either objects or other living beings. If you have a drinking problem and you say “it’s not the liquor” you have hit on a corner of the truth without exercising true comprehension of the entire dynamic. Let’s try a general equation: Object + Person = Problem. We don’t say “it’s not a liquor problem” to the alcoholic. We tell them that they have a disease and part of the cure is keeping liquor away from their lips. It’s liquor and them, To say it’s not a gun problem is to ignore the entire dynamic. In the case of a would-be criminal it is: Gun + Person = Problem.

The “Person” part of this equation is where all this discussion of societal and family dynamics plays a part. I am not arguing against any of that. By all means, limit exposure to violent media in young people, work to support healthy family and community life, look out for each other, be aware of who is being bullied or ostracized.

But next, let’s take another look at how a love of guns that sometimes resembles a sublimated sexual obsession works in this way to damage society. And not just among criminals but also in the law abiding gun community. How can we allow easy access to guns to the frustrated, isolated, and powerless among us by making an argument that guns should be universally accessible? Because of our blithe attitude towards gun culture, we give our tacit permission to use guns to solve these problems. Our love of guns and our lack of control with this obsession sends the wrong message: “We don’t care, so why should you?” Our blindness to this simple fact leads to tragedy. And it leads inevitably to doubling down with the following logic; when a problem of gun violence inevitably occurs, throw more guns at it (e.g.: arming teachers).

We have reached the insanity of a gun culture without limits. The way to demonstrate that we as a nation can control this problem is to actually exercise control. Over ourselves and over guns.

Until we look deeply into our individual souls, and our soul as a nation, and begin to see gun culture as a pathology (and yes, it is about guns too), one that needs to be examined and rationalized and tamed, we will move along into a future unchanged.

Bless those high school kids. They are guiding us to a new future.

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Getting to Eukaryota

Micro-eukaryota
 
It’s strange how one thing can lead to another. Sometimes the result is hodgepodge, sometimes pattern. Today it was intricate, well ordered, lustrous pattern.
 
I began this morning by picking up where I left off last night with my “drifting off” thoughts in bed. Ironically for someone who, like many others, has preparation for sleep in mind when he reads in bed the subject of my evening’s read was mental restlessness. I’m reading “Open Minded” by Jonathan Lear and he puts the idea of restlessness out there as a basic feature of the human psyche. OK, maybe not the best book for your bedside table at night. But I get up this morning (having successfully put aside that concept in favor of actual restfulness) thinking about the disruptive function of restlessness and how it works to break up the cozy comforts of “knowingness”.
 
My Sunday morning pledge is to not look at social media until I actually accomplish something. Sunday morning is also my “Bible study.” Well, that’s what I call it anyway and sometimes it involves studying the actual Bible. But it is always dedicated to pondering imponderables. After sitting quietly with the usual morning muddle of my own thoughts during which I drink my first cup of coffee (I told you this was a routine!), I go off in search of the term “disruption.”
 
This leads to a chain of exploration which winds up with Eukaryota, which is kind of an important word for reasons we will discover. For now let’s just leave it here on the page with its lovely pronunciation: “You-carry-oh-tah.”
 
I’m glad I woke up today. I say it out loud: “You-carry-oh-tah.” (just so beautiful.)
 
Let me recount the descent of thought I followed from just typing “disruption” into the search field. If you prefer “ascent” that’s fine. Just beware that you are now identified as hopelessly cheery.
 
Up pops “The Disruption of 1843.” Sounds curious. Many years are full of disruption. Why does 1843 rise above the others to earn distinction on the disruptiveness scale? It turns out that a great schism occurred in the Scottish church that year involving dissent over who controlled the placement of clergy in local churches and who was really in charge after all. According to those rebels who decided to part ways from their established church, it was most certainly not the state! 
 
“The Disruption Assembly” by David Octavius Hill

 A side discovery to this was finding an amazing portrait of over 400 of the 1000 plus Scottish dissenters who met to begin their independence movement. A painter present for the festivities wanted to memorialize the confab and a photographer who was also present offered to take pictures of the rabble as reference material. It was a pioneering event in the history of photography and resulted in one amazing 5’ x 11’ painting. (See image here)

 
From there I picked up on “Presbyterianism” because I remembered something about it starting in Scotland as a religious movement with emphasis on local control of church teaching and organization, rather than relying on hierarchical dictates. In that Wikipedia article there was a curious editor’s warning that said emphatically; “This section possibly contains original research.” Well that certainly caught my attention since I was under the impression that Wikipedia was all about original research. Turns out to be anything but! A basic rule for them is that nothing should appear on any page without referencing established resource material. In other words, you can’t just put any old shit up there. Wait… this IS the internet isn’t it?
 
From there I went off onto a little bit of a worm-hole tangent. Just stay with me.
 
On the Wikipedia page that describes the above policy regarding “original research” there was a small flag at the bottom “Wikiversity allows original research”. Hey, thank goodness somebody does! Again, my interest in the theme of disruption was demanding some access to the open air here. And “Wikiversity” sounded interesting. I think I could afford to go there!
 
Wikiversity is part of the “Wiki” nebulae, an element of the Wikimedia Foundation, which is in turn part of the Wikimedia Movement. And that’s a lot of Wiki. Wikiversity is a free school, a collection of learning materials developed through the generosity of spirit that runs rife through this whole enterprise. After noodling around this cloud college for a while I saw a list of other projects that the Wikimedia Foundation has going. First I tried Wikinews but that was a little thin (the content seemed to be dominated by English football for some reason.)
 
The next morsel of click bait for me was Wikispecies. I have no idea why. There was also Wikivoyage which sounded too leisurely I guess. This was study time after all. On Wikispecies I looked at several pages but they all contained just taxonomy with no narrative content. I did learn that wrens and finches are related so now I’ve got that little factoid to wield on my next trip birding. (me) “Did you know wrens and finches are related?” (her, looking at a wood duck) “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”
 
Now comes the part where those members of my audience in the “cheery” faction get their due. I found myself looking at the taxonomy structure and wondering what was towards the top. I was ascending! Way up there, above order, above class, above phylum, above kingdom even… was that word: Eukaryota. “You-carry-oh-tah.”
 
This was the big kahuna! The Domain. All organisms with a cell structure that contain a nucleus with genetic material belong to it. Its the mother ship. The uber category. The Realm of the Seven Kingdoms. The background category that every form of life belongs to.
 
Except for bacteria.
 
That will have to wait for another Sunday.
 
 
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Eclipse Notes

“Blue Eclipse” Batik by David Lucht

As totality approached the light around us dimmed. At first this progressed in a kind of familiar way, like when the sky gets hazy. But then in the final ten minutes the quality of light became very unique. It wasn’t “sort of like” anything I’d ever seen. The set of wavelengths that came off that final sliver of sun allow an ordinarily unseen band of color to emerge in the visual spectrum, one that is reserved for just these occasions.

 
The blue sky shifted to a deep cool gray. The clouds on the horizon turned sunset rose. The air cooled.
 
I glanced through the eclipse glasses at the disappearing sliver of sun and then back at the rapidly darkening landscape. Back and forth. Fast changes. Sundown on time lapse.
 
Then it was dark. I looked up without the glasses and saw the diamond ring. That moment was fleeting, treasured, spectacularly beautiful.
 
And then we were in the totality.
 
A black disc with petals of brilliant corona was now above us. So extraordinary. An underserved gift. Then we saw Venus. We talked about the light as being “not quite night.” Then for another minute nothing changed. The small crowd we were in was buzzing and “whooping” and I joined in.  I gave Stefanie an eclipse kiss.
 
 A great wave of gratitude and peace came over me. I was fortunate to share it all with family. Wendell Berry said the religious impulse has much to do with our response to underserved gifts. So it does.
 
 
 
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Our Life in Between

The theme of this blog is the life we live in between. We have our main life, usually one of work and home and family. And we have our other life. The one we use to offset the primary life. Vacation. Hobbies. Community service. If we lived only in the first life we might function responsibly but we might also arrive at that dreaded sense of stagnancy. Endless cycles in the mundane. Featureless existence on a long slog towards our demise.

Life proceeds without our prompting. But our sense of being alive depends crucially on our ability to inject our energy into it. And this ability must be expressed in two ways; our responsible existence, and our crazy life. In the time we are allowed we are provided the opportunity to create this crazy space that helps us to regain something. I know that life wants a discussion about what is possible. But practical Dave says this can’t happen. Or that is just plain crazy. We can’t afford it. It can’t be done. Dreamer Dave says “Why not?” So we move into little spots where our dreams can meet up with reality. We buy a boat. We start a project that benefits the community. We open our minds to a way of thinking that isn’t part of our habit.

I find that this creates a space in between. I call it “Life in the Hyphen” because it exists as real as both sides of life. It is where we find wholeness and peace. If we are courageous enough to create both we can then find a point of balance in that “between”.

 

 

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