Tag: life

Varieties of life under the sea

July 21, 2010 | By | Reply More
Varieties of life under the sea

I am continually amazed at the wide variety of shapes of plant and animal life. Today, I ran across this series of photos of sea life, some of it from the deep sea. If I had been asked to design a new underwater life form, my imagination would not possibly have been able to concoct functioning animals like these. It’s incredible that each of these life forms continues to live today, the successor to a long series of earlier and simpler life forms.

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It’s always a good time to appreciate good things

February 23, 2010 | By | 7 Replies More
It’s always a good time to appreciate good things

I had to work late tonight, and as I got into my car I was a bit frustrated that I was not able to get home earlier, so I could spend more time with my daughters. Poor me.

As I put the key in the ignition, however, it occurred to me that I was fortunate that when I turned a little key in the ignition, my cars engine fired up. I was lucky to be able to drive quickly home in a car that actually worked on a cold winter night. Not only does it work, it has a radio. As I drove through the streets of the city of St. Louis, I appreciated that there were well marked streets and that the people driving home around me were doing so carefully. I passed a Walgreens on the way home, and it occurred to me that I am lucky to live in a society where you can get quick relief for many medical ailments. Many people in the world have no access to aspirin when they get headaches. I shouldn’t ever take that for granted.

When I got home and saw my beautiful children, it occurred to me that I should always consciously appreciate how lucky I am when I get home and I find that my children are safe. When I see them smile I should give thanks for that too, because there are many people who don’t have a safe place to spend time with their smiling children. I could go on and on, of course. I live in a wealthy society where I can turn on lights with the flick of a switch, and where the interiors of our houses are usually comfortable. I live in a society where a magic Internet gives me easy access to more information from more diverse groups of people than I could have ever imagined. I live a life of luxuries that could make a King jealous.

As I dictate this short post, I am eating a delicious bowl of soup, sitting in a comfortable chair, knowing that my children (and now my wife) are safe and healthy and sleeping soundly upstairs. I am free to walk out of my front porch and stare up at the sky. I can somehow see one big round object that is a quarter million miles away, and I can see hundreds and thousands of stars. Because of the scientific work of many who have come before me, I know I live on a huge orb and that underneath my feet, way down past the Earth itself, there are billions more stars.

I am awestruck by the thought that several trillions of cells have somehow become highly coordinated to an extent that “I.” exist. The body is so complex that I don’t wonder why it sometimes doesn’t work–rather, I revel in the fact that it works at all. How is it that 10 billion of those cells have become self-aware? Indeed, how is it that this 3 pound brain is capable of generating endless representations of the real world inside of my own head? How is it that I am able to think about conversations I had it work while I sit home alone at home? this is all too amazing to understand.

Yes, we live in a world where many things could be better than they are, but I try to remember (though not often enough) that I am an extremely fortunate person living among extremely fortunate people, and that there should not be any whining in a place like this. And just after I had reminded myself about how wonderfully mysterious life is, I stumbled upon this YouTube video featuring Louis C.K., who passionately summed up what I I have been feeling tonight.

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Life is real

November 22, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More
Life is real

After a business meeting in Boston last week, I had two extra hours before I needed to head to the airport. I decided to visit a few historical sites on foot by following Boston’s “Freedom Trail.” At one end of the trail is the “Old North Church,” from which the patriots displayed two lanterns to give warning that the British were about to attack “by sea.”

As I was approaching the Old North Church, I had an odd thought: The Old North Church really exists. It’s not just part of a concocted story like Harry Potter. You can walk up and touch the bricks and feel the history in your fingertips. You can trace the history of the church through hundreds of authentic letters and other writings. You can say with great confidence that the Old North Church played a real-life role the Revolutionary War.

Because I am a lawyer and a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking of abstract ideas. For that reason, I often need to remind myself about some of the many parts of life that really happened. Maybe I also need to remind myself that some things are really real because entertainment has become such a central part of our lives. When Americans get together, they often bond by discussing television shows and movies. These works of fictions are so often discussed that they seem to rise to the level of “facts.” But our world mostly depends on real events that dramatically affect our lives.

On the flight back home from Boston, I started thinking of some of the other amazing things that actually play critical roles in our lives. They aren’t just stories in history books or science books. For instance, World War II really occurred. It wasn’t just a movie. There are cemeteries filled with the bodies of the soldiers that died in that war. Consider also, the importance of large-scale immigration to the United States over the past centuries. Without that mass movement of people to the United States, most of us wouldn’t have been born. The scale and the details of many real life events are more amazing than anything any fiction writer could conjure up. Here are some other important facts that I am generally amazed at whenever I take the time to remind myself that these aren’t simply stories:

* The Greeks really built an extraordinary civilization, as did the Maya and the Egyptian. These aren’t just yarns spun by museums and authors.
* We’re floating in space and there are stars under our feet too.
* The sun is a giant furnace that really does light and heat the earth, and someday the sun won’t exist.
* The universe is expanding in rapidly in such a way as to suggest a Big Bang, which was a time when there was no Earth and no living things.
* Human beings are animals, and we run in large flocks. 40% of our DNA matches the DNA of lettuce.
* All living things are related.
* We don’t have any credible users’ manual for living life on earth.
* We are far from rational beings.
* Despite its unfathomable complexity, including the fact that it is constituted of many billions of cells, the human body works.
* Almost all human cognition is subconscious and it is driven largely by emotions, addictions and instincts.
* There really are 7 billion people on our planet and we are rapidly exhausting the planet’s resources.

I often need to remind myself of these things. I get too distracted by day-to-day aspects of my life, which causes me to take all too many things for granted. Thus, I need to remind myself that much of the world around us is really real, not just a story. This is almost embarrassing to admit, but I often enrich my life by consciously acknowledging the obvious.

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Excuse me . . . my mortality is showing: meditations on life and death

September 28, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More
Excuse me . . . my mortality is showing: meditations on life and death

Have you ever wondered why so many Americans wear clothing when it’s warm outside? Are they really covering up for sexual propriety—because of shame? Or could it be that they are wearing clothes to cover up their animal-ness– their mortality? I’m intrigued by this issue, as you can tell from my previous writings, including my posts about “terror management theory,” and nipples.

This issue came to mind again recently when I found a website that allows you to completely undress people. The site has nothing to do with sex, I can assure you, but it has a powerful set of images that raise interesting questions about human nakedness. To get the full experience, go to the website and select an image of a fully clothed person. These are absolutely ordinary looking people, as you will see. Then click on the images of any of these men or women and watch their clothes disappear.

If you are like me, when their clothing disappears, this will not cause you to any think sexual thoughts. If you are like me, you will find yourself thinking that these people looked more “attractive” with their clothes on. For me, the effect is dramatic and immediate, and it reminded me of a comment by Sigmund Freud (I wasn’t able to dig out the quote), something to the effect that we are constantly and intensely attracted to the idea of sex (duh!), but that sex organs themselves often look rather strange to our eyes–sex organs are not necessarily sexy. I think the same thing can be said for our entire bodies. Nakedness isn’t the same thing as sexuality or else nudist colonies would tend to be orgies (which, from what I’ve read, they are not). Rather, sexual feelings are triggered by the way we use our bodies. We do many things that are sexual, and most of these things take some effort. Simply being naked is not an effective way to be sexy.

In America, people constantly confound nudity with sexuality. I admit that the media presents us with many ravishing image of sexy naked people, but the sexiness of such images is not due to the mere nakedness. There’s always a lot more going on than mere nakedness. Consider also, that when people actually mate, they often bring the lights down low, further hiding their bodies.

Then why do Westerners cover up with clothing to be “proper”? I suspect that anxiety about death (not so much anxiety about sex) contributes to our widespread practice of hiding those naturally furry parts of our bodies—those parts associated with critically “animal” functions relating to reproduction and excretion of body wastes.

[More . . .]

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Holland House: a real world place to enjoy life after you die.

August 23, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Holland House: a real world place to enjoy life after you die.

All my life I’ve been fascinated with the way most people refuse to deal with death. Many people simply can’t stand to talk plainly about death. When Uncle Fred dies, they can’t bear to say “Uncle Fred died.” Rather, it’s something like Uncle Fred “passed away” Or “Uncle Fred went to heaven,” even though no one is sure whether there is a heaven—or if there really were a heaven, no one knows how one would really know whether Uncle Fred really earned his way in. Regardless, whenever people die, most people talk as though they are sure the loved one is still alive and that they are absolutely certain that he or she didn’t go to hell.

Further, when people speak of the death of loved ones, they usually speak in a strange voice and with strange facial expressions. It’s difficult to say why people have such a difficult time talking plainly about death, but they do. I don’t claim to have the entire answer, but I am intrigued by the insights of Terror Management Theory.

People also talk this strange way when their pets die. A few months ago, an acquaintance told me that his 10 and 12 year old sons had been crying constantly, for several weeks, that their dog “passed away and went to dog heaven.” Good grief! Then again, we are also living at a time when Americans will go so far as to pay thousands of dollars for chemotherapy for their 15-year old dogs. Most of us just can’t let go.

As a teenager, I often noticed this discomfort with death and I wondered why so many people can’t shoot straight on such an important topic. Why can’t people plainly admit that within 150 years every person currently living on earth will be dead, and that this includes your parents, your children, everyone one of your friends and even those know-it-all preachers who so often assure you that you continue to live after you die?

This fascinating topic of death came up vividly last week. A co-worker was telling me about a strange request being made by her 70-year old mother. Her mother has repeatedly raised the topic of her own (eventual) death and she has requested that when she dies, she wants her children to embalm her and place her body into a glass coffee table, lying on her back, with her eyes open. She wants to remain part of the family forever, as best she is able. My co-worker and her family were somewhat amused by this request until it became clear that her mother wasn’t kidding. Her mother really wants her dead body to remain in the living room of one of her adult children, where it will be plainly visible to her children and grandchildren (and presumably great-grandchildren, etc). Here mother claims to be figuring out how to make this glass coffee table entombment a reality.

Hearing this story reminded me of a concept I co-developed with a buddy named Mike Harty back in high school (in 1974). Mike and I often discussed death back in high school. Many of our classmates found the topic to be disturbing, but it energized and entertained us. One day, we wondered what kind of potential market might exist for post-death “living” arrangements for families whose loved ones were now corpses. We called our concept “Holland House,” (I believe that we borrowed the named from this real life opulent estate). Our company slogan would be: “We think your loved ones should not be deprived of their earthly pleasures.” And also this one: Holland House: Open to all dead people from 7 to 70.” Mike even drew a photo of Holland House, which would offer wealthy families the finest in post-death community living:

[caption id="attachment_8651" align="aligncenter" width="445" caption="Art by Mike Harty"]holland-house-lo-res[/caption]

Holland House would be a large lavish resort for dead people, an alternative for families not willing to plop their dead loved ones into graves. Here’s how we planned to market Holland House.

Important announcement for bereaved families. Consider this alternative to burial or cremation. Simply send your loved ones to Holland House and we will carry on where the nursing home left off. Our attendants will start the day by taking your loved one’s corpse out of bed, dressing it and wheeling it to the breakfast table, where it would sit (admittedly stiffly and silently) in front of fresh food prepared by highly trained chefs. After breakfast, we will wheel your loved one to a wide variety of activities, including various classes and recreational activities.

There would be visiting hours, where the families could come to talk to their dead loved ones—Holland House staff would wheel the corpse into a brightly lit visiting area, with tea and cookies, where the family could present an update about what was going on with the living members of the family. Our professional staff would update the family as to their loved ones’ activities at Holland House. For instance, we might advise: “Yesterday we had a photography class and horseback riding. Tomorrow, we will have dancing classes–two attendants will assist each corpse–and shuffleboard.”

[caption id="attachment_8653" align="alignright" width="282" caption="Art by Mike Harty"]Art by Mike Harty[/caption]

Holland House would have a photographer on staff to keep the family photo album updated with photos of everyone in the family, alive or otherwise.

[I’m not recounting these ideas from pure memory. Mike and I wrote up an outline of the services to be offered by Holland House]

Mike and I planned that Holland House would have private rooms for each of the guests, with a color TV in each room. We’d have an extensive library and a medical center (where we’d we well stocked in deodorant). We offer night classes too, including a favorite: “How to get the most out of life.”). There would be a dating service, where we’d match residents based on their accomplishments while they were alive. We’d have a high end clothes store, so that our residents were always wearing up-to-date fashions. Our foods would be naturally grown organic foods fertilized by former residents. Oh, and we’d be careful at Holland House that we’d never refer to our residents as “dead.”

Perhaps you’re wondering how long would a corpse stay at Holland House? The answer is simple: as long as the family couldn’t bear to dispose of the corpse in some other way or until the family money ran out, whatever came earlier.

I am offering this idea for free to anyone who wants to offer Holland House services to people with far too much money. Then again, perhaps post-death living might get so popular someday that Medicare would pick up the tab, which could lead to multiple generation families residing on entire wings of Holland House . . .

Mike and I created all of this for our amusement many years ago, but this concept was all triggered by the fact that so many people can’t acknowledge that dead people were really and truly dead.

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Compassion As Discipline

March 1, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More
Compassion As Discipline

“True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason.” – HH, the Dalai Lama

Think of people as a cross between ants and marbles constantly moving in somewhat random patterns. A mass of movement, whirring about, jostling for position and direction going about our business of motion. Sometimes we bump into each other and those bumps impact direction and velocity. When we bump, it is a function of being in the right place at the right time to have whatever impact we do. We go about our days, bumping into other marbles in the checkout line, while making lane changes, and while making a living. Many contacts happen without us being aware of them, without thinking. People often have tunnel vision and are focused only on our own paths. The reality is, though, that the opportunity for real connection is always there, we simply must expect it from ourselves. Even amidst seemingly random patterns we can choose to forge bonds with each other, but we must be committed to seeing other people with compassion.

One day I was on my way to the grocery store to pick up a prescription. It was a gray, blustery day. Traffic in the parking lot was horrible, and I could see an even more frustrating backup while a car inexplicably sat in the way of any traffic in any direction. I hate that. I was not in the best of moods that day, and after I waited five long minutes I got out of my car and walked to the head of the line, which was now edging out into the street. I gestured at the driver and at that moment a man walked out of the store and headed over to the waiting car. He asked me what my problem was, and I said that I was going to ask her to move the car so the traffic could pass. I was on my best behavior, I was professional, pleasant, not at all nasty. I really didn’t expect the vitriol that spewed from his mouth at me. I can’t remember the details but I remember my reaction. Instead of flinching back I took a step forward, straightened my posture, stuck out my chin, and said his attack was unnecessary. He then said, “What are you going to do, hit me? You big dyke.” Bizarre. I am anything but big. I am a little thing, even if I am strong, and I don’t necessarily transmit dykeness, at least that is what folks tell me. I was really taken aback . . .

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Why no worries about life before life?

February 4, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More
Why no worries about life before life?

This is a comment in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind Letters section. The author is “identified as Farlo”:

[W]hy do we perceive death to be different from prebirth or, more precisely, pre-conception? That is also a time when our brain is not functioning–when it does not exist. Yet we do not spend nearly as much time pondering what happened to us or where our minds were before we were born.

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Why is death a surprise?

December 14, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More
Why is death a surprise?

I learned yesterday that a fairly recent acquaintance had died. He was 15 years younger than me, and found dead in his bed. He had joined our contradance group this year, so was in better than average health. This sort of event generally leads to sober thoughts. But, why? Lloyds of London doesn’t insure lives, […]

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Life is so damned fickle

October 31, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More
Life is so damned fickle

Consider this report from MSNBC: A Michigan man who bowled his first perfect game immediately collapsed in the bowling alley and died.

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