August breaks

Karen and cousin Kay in summer.

Karen and cousin Kay in summer.

IT'S AUGUST, THAT quintessential summer month when temperatures rise, and sometimes so do tempers. Congress is in recess, the president is on vacation, and the roads are filled with American families seeking new vistas or hoping to escape the turmoil of the last few months.

August always brings to mind the slow, lazy, endless summer days of my childhood, when temperatures hovered in the 90–100 degree range and relief was found at the municipal pool or movie theatre. August was walking with friends to the nearest grocery for a popsicle or games of statue in the twilight. It was skinned knees and sleeping late, and playing jacks on a hot sidewalk.

But at the moment I'm on the patio, where it's a pleasant 79. Ray is asleep in the chair next to me and Zoe is sprawled across the love seat. I hear an airplane passing over, and water splashing into the pond across the road. A little traffic noise in the distance. The quick beat of wings from a hummingbird at the feeder.

This peaceful scene belies the busyness that more often reigns as Ray's needs become more time consuming, which sometimes causes me to hurry unnecessarily, which led to a couple of spectacular spills last week. But first I broke a plate that I liked; one holding memories of France. It was my own fault, and it happened because I was rushing.

The next day I broke a full, unopened liter of Greek olive oil because, in a hurry, I neglected to turn on a light, which would have saved both the oil and the time it took to clean up the mess.

That was followed two days later by a dramatic pattern in brown and black, splashed across the counter and down the cupboard doors. This time I was multitasking, and reaching for something to put away I swept my arm across two drip cones filled with hot water and coffee grounds. Fortunately the cups didn't break and the mess was considerably easier to clean up.

I am, as a result of the last few days, trying to slow down, to remember that it's August, to think of myself as on vacation, with nothing to worry about but where the next meal might come from. Instead of cooking I'll buy food already prepared from the great delis and grocery stores nearby—at least as long as my budget holds out. And I'll find time to take a walk, even if it's just to the road and back. And I'll drink a beer—or two—and refuse to worry about the state of the world or the state of our country.

This August is bringing us two eclipses (lunar and solar) and Mercury retrograde, so things may get rocky, if only because we think they will. But it's still summer. Take a deep breath and remember the good times. If I can do this, so can you.

A dose of physics

Karen at Miletus, Turkey

Karen at Miletus, Turkey

THERE'S NOTHING BETTER to heal the stress of current societal turmoil than a dose of physics. To spend an hour in the submicroscopic realm of quarks and photons, of spin clouds and quanta, is to leave the irksome deeds of the macroscopic world far behind.

I've been enjoying just that while reading Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. The author's first sentence pulled me in, for he describes a journey from Miletus to Abdera in the year 450 BCE. I have stood among the ruins of Miletus, in Turkey, and tried to imagine the great city as it once was. Rovelli's purpose, however, was to introduce us to Democritus of Abdera, the first atomist. Everything, he believed, was made of atoms, indivisible, freely moving in space. 

From there the author introduces, in succession, the great physicists and their ideas, from Isaac Newton, to Einstein, Neils, Werner, and more. It's a very readable book, and I recommend it. You don't need to understand loop quantum gravity or quantum mechanics (no one does) to appreciate that the world is both more complex, and simpler, than what we imagine. In fact quantum gravity predicts that the world is made of only one thing: covariant quantum fields. Try that on for size.

The search for quantum gravity is really the search for a unified theory, a way of understanding how both Einstein's general relativity and quantum mechanics—very different concepts—explain the same universe. Rovelli believes they are close to proving such a theory, but also admits it may never be found. But science progresses, and if you can believe that space is granular, that entangled particles communicate instantaneously across vast distances, and that time exists only when heat is present, you are half way there.

I willingly accept all this, but I'm puzzled most about consciousness. Quantum physics says that quanta exist as both particles and waves in a field of potentiality. That is, it is nowhere until observed, at which time it becomes a particle in a place—an electron in a light bulb for instance. This strange fact has been proven over and over again.

In laboratory experiments it is presumably a human who does the observing. But can the observer also be a machine? An animal? An insect? And how does the wave/particle know that it is or has been observed? Is it conscious? Does it recognize other consciousness? Is consciousness required in order for the world to exist? Is our collective consciousness creating reality around us? And what the heck is consciousness?

No one knows that either, apparently. I once read a book titled The Physics of Consciousness, hoping to learn the secret. Alas, it turns out the author didn't know, though he had a lot of interesting ideas.

I love physics. It's incredibly challenging and I admit I don't comprehend all that I read, but it opens my mind in ways that nothing else does. Rovelli says that physics is like fresh air through an open window. I like that. If you're depressed about the state of the country or the world I can't think of a better antidote. Reach for a physics book and take a deep dive. You may find the world is, instead, a place of endless potentiality. What could be better?

In wildness I trust

The creek in winter.

The creek in winter.

WE SPENT SATURDAY in the woods at a little cabin beside a creek. It's an easy drive from Portland but the highway carries you into another realm. Tall, old-growth Douglas firs surround the cabin, and a wilderness area is within easy reach. No internet signal intrudes. There is water, but no electricity.

Ray sat on the porch and watched his granddaughter practice her carving skills while the creek burbled through low rapids a few feet away. I went for a walk. It felt good to be back among the trees and I walked slowly, enjoying the feeling that wooded areas always inspire in me, that of being among friends. I stopped often to look up, sometimes resting my hand on a tree so I wouldn't fall over as I leaned back to see the tops of the firs so far above me, their branches swaying in the breeze against a pale blue sky.

The dirt road was more like a trail than a road, quite narrow in places, and strewn with pine needles and crushed cones. The understory was thick with ferns, a few white daisies and tiny pink flowers that I couldn't identify; some Oregon grape, a blackberry bush. But the ferns ruled.

About thirty minutes in I crossed a barrier into the wilderness area, and stopped at the sign-in box that marks all such boundaries. Parties of up to 12 are permitted, I read, but those 12 include livestock—horses presumably, or maybe llamas—and it made me smile to see this conflating of humans and livestock. A rare thing in our human-centric world.

I didn't sign in; I was only going a short distance, to the creek that I could easily hear and was tempted to cross. But jumping from wet rock to wet rock didn't seem prudent out here in the lonesome so I took a longing look at the narrow path through the trees beyond and turned back.

At the cabin our hosts were headed to the swimming hole to see who could stay in the icy water the longest. I eased myself into a hammock, strung between two trees at the edge of the creek. Gazing upward I saw nothing but pale green leaves lit by sunlight, of vine maple and alder, and higher, a different kind of maple. Beyond that were glimpses of blue and the tip of a fir tree.

As I lay there I thought about all those—especially children—who live without ever experiencing a day in the woods, a dip in a cold creek, or even a walk along a pine-cone strewn road. This thought saddened me, because such moments are magical and touched with spirit, intangible but crucial. Without spirit we are simply egocentric beings marching to the drumbeat of culture and society. With it, we are the world and everything in it, even the universe itself.

There are those who would steal nature from us, to kill and drill and log and mine for money. They cannot take all of it, but they may try, and we must fight. Our day on the creek was a welcome break from city life. But the best part was knowing there are more forests and lakes and rivers and oceans—and all the life contained within them—just over the horizon. And all are waiting for us until needed again. May it always be so.




Flowering pots of protest

I am sitting on the porch, my feet on a table. The sun is shining but it's not overly warm; white clouds drift across the sky and sometimes steal the sun, leaving a sudden chill as a calling card. The geraniums in their pots are blooming nicely, the Russian sage is growing taller, as is the lavender and rosemary. Others are not doing so well; they were hurt by our unusual winter cold and are having a hard time regaining what they lost. I could replace them of course, but I'd rather give them a chance.

The news is filled with talk of health care and lack of health care and protests against changing health care. Everywhere I look I see tales of impending doom if the Republican bill passes. We thought seven years ago this issue was settled, but here it is at our door again. This constant churning is demoralizing and cruel, for reliable health care is integral to how safe one feels in the world. How is causing 22 million people to lose care a good thing?

The preamble to the U. S. Constitution lists just six items government must do to "form a more perfect union": establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide a common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. Note that general welfare and common defense get equal billing. Maybe we should take half our overblown military budget and create universal healthcare. And please tell me how depriving millions of insurance in order to give huge tax cuts to billionaires, is justice.

I don't see how this can end well for the country, or for Republicans. Will the 61% of voters who approve of Medicaid vote again for the senators and representatives who destroyed it? It doesn't seem likely. But then having Trump as the president didn't seem likely either.

Whatever happens with the vote this week we're clearly a long way from the founder's vision of a tranquil, unified country. Can we really withdraw our help from a baby born with a heart defect, or a cancer patient who might be saved with chemo? Because that's what will happen if this plan takes effect.

Even my potted plants deserve a chance to live. Shouldn't we do the same for our fellow citizens?


Changing the message

Thirty-nine years ago I published my first piece in Eugene's Willamette Valley Observer, and while I went on to write many more pieces for that newspaper, this one holds a special place. I've been thinking about it lately, because I've been thinking about narcissism.

The piece, a first venture into opinion writing, was called "The Message is Me," written because for several months I'd been observing a new phenomenon. It may seem strange to readers today, but until the late 70s it was unusual to see people wearing company logos, or tee-shirts identifying stores, companies, events, or ideas. This new thing, clearly a trend, interested me.

"There's a growing compulsion to adorn our chests and backs with notices and free advertising, and people wander the streets like miniature message boards, demanding our attention. Why?"

Looking back on it now, I wonder if it was a first symptom of our national trend toward narcissism—or self-centeredness if you prefer. I'm not suggesting we're all Donald Trumps, but in our actions, our politics, our writing, we now emphasize the individual me far more often than the communal we. 

Consider the increasing number of novels written in first person; a style that was rarely used in the past, when third-person "omniscient" narration dominated. And memoirs—the most me-centered of all writing—are flourishing, with agents and publishers begging for them. Writers and would-be writers across the land are flocking to classes in memoir writing. This genre used to be the preserve of celebrities; now everyone wants to tell their story, and readers are buying. I'm not opposed to this, I've written one myself. I'm just suspicious of the change.

Think about the way our government and society have drawn away from the broad, people-centered programs of the post-war years into the 1960s. Johnson's poverty program and the drive for civil rights capped that period, and beginning in the late 70s and 80s our attitudes began to change. Individual wealth was applauded, while the not-so-fortunate saw government (i.e, communal) support dwindle, and continue to do so. Much of this is associated with President Reagan, 1981–1988.

And now we have elected an undisputed narcissist as our president. The world of I is spread out before us in glaring relief, and it's not pretty. We've heedlessly moved from we to me—my belongings, my job, my looks, my problems—a self focus encouraged by social media.

Our planet is in deep trouble. Our government is unresponsive and corrupt. Our infrastructure can barely be called that. Our schools cry out for attention and tax money.

As an only child I know the attraction of narcissistic behavior. It's a little like having the devil on your shoulder whispering, "It's all right, you do what you want. You're special."

And I am. And so are you. And so is every single life on this planet. And now we can all look into the mirror that Trump is holding up for us, and decide what kind of people we want to be. We can continue down the road we're on, or we can open our eyes and stretch out a hand. We can move from selfishness to empathy. But we have to choose, and soon.

Memorial Day

A gray morning. I open the New York Times site and see a photo of endless white crosses on a grassy slope. It makes me wonder; if we could add up every life lost in every war and action and evacuation and operation, how many would there be? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

Curious, I turn to Google, which shows me copies of every document officially declaring war. There are eleven. Great Britain in 1812, Spain and Mexico in 1846, Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1917 (WWI), and of course WWII, when we declared war on Japan, Germany, and Italy in December 1941 and Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary in June 1942.

But then something happened. Declared war became a thing of the past — a strange deviation for a country so in love with its military. Now we just have actions, or operations, or incursions, or sometimes evacuations.

I turned to Wikipedia and found a list of every action in which the U.S. participated (some of those listed included actions for humanitarian purposes). Of course anyone of my generation immediately thinks of Vietnam, nine years of misery and a sundering of our unity. In reality it was longer than that, there were military advisers in South Vietnam as early as 1959. But before Vietnam there was Korea 1950–1953, and through the 50s the U.S. involved its military just eight times in sites around the world.

In the 1960s the count rises to ten: two Cuban actions, an expeditionary force landing in Thailand, planes to Congo, advisers to Laos; Dominican Republic, Laos again, Cambodia, a few more.

The slow rise continues into the 1970s, when there are 11; mostly continuing actions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea. But in the 1980s the number explodes to 29 and includes such names as “operation Earnest Will, operation Praying Mantas, and operation Prime Chance. A few of these last more than a year. These names make me think the military — or someone — is having too much fun.

In the 1990s it grows again to 32, again with several multi-year actions. From 2000 to 2009 it drops to 20, including the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, and the war on terror — all of which continue to this day. (Note that though we call them wars, Congress, the only body with responsibility for declaring war, didn’t.)

The list from 2010 to 2017 shows 22 actions, but by now I am too depressed to go on. And I’ve not touched the Civil War, the slave rebellions, the battles against Native Americans.

So the answer to my question, “how many” is an obvious “far, far too many.” And looking at this long list one has to ask, how many died for a useless cause, a mistake, a regretted decision? And how many of these events could have been avoided with a little less testosterone and a lot more talk?

There will always be reasons to fight. But I hope that in the not too distant future we’ll avoid unnecessary deaths, and instead assume humanity’s capacity to solve problems without resorting to weapons. We will have to exchange our love of guns and glory for devotion to common sense and creative thinking. We can do that. And to honor all those millions who have died for us, we must.

The complexity of loss

A few weeks ago bluejays started building a nest in a tree outside our window and I looked forward to seeing tiny birds take their first flying lessons. But the bluejays have deserted us. Maybe they decided having a nest so near a cat wasn't wise (it's just five or six feet from the balcony perch the cat prefers), but Zoé would run in fear at two jays squawking and flapping their wings in her direction. Surely they knew this.

I took the binoculars out yesterday and looked closely at the nest. No sign of life at all. The piled sticks and leaves hugged the tree's trunk—a habit of jays—and the nest, like a sloppily-made basket, was the perfect size for a large bird and a couple of chicks. The loss made me feel lonely, which is ridiculous since I'd had no chance to make their acquaintance; let alone know their names. But still, it was a loss.

The casual complexity of the nest reminded me of other complexities, the lifecycle of the frogs I hear chirping in the undergrowth, and the fractal geometry contained within the tree leaves that I can almost touch if I lean over the balcony rail. These are hints of the deep complexities that form our world and I am in awe when I spend time looking and listening.

It is these complexities that worry me when I think of climate change. It's impossible for us to know—let alone understand—the interrelationships between ourselves and the millions of species that share our planet. (The Environmental Literacy Council estimates between 5 and 30 million.) It's easy to be distraught over the loss of polar bears, but what about the 300,000 species of beetles? Don't they deserve a little sympathy? 

We all know the doleful litany—denuded forestlands, acidic oceans, loss of cultivable land, poisoned air—all interlocking complexities, all produced by humans. No bee, beetle, bear, or bird created this catastrophe but each is at risk. If we cannot stop the warming we leave these creatures facing mass extinction. And all the vital complexities contained within them, all the still unknown interlocking pieces of our world, pieces that might solve problems we don't even have yet, will die with them.

I don't want to wake up one morning to find no birds in my trees, no bees buzzing around the lavender, no butterflies flitting across the landscape. I hope the jays will come back next spring and try again. I hope there will always be jays and that spring will always come round to warm and delight us with the colors and sounds and complexities of nature. I doubt humans can live without that, and I don't think I want to.