Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inflorescence

     Atop the windowsill, just behind my kitchen sink, lives a Phaleonopsis orchid. From its waxy-smooth emerald leaves and wandering air roots to its splendid crown of creamy violet-speckled blooms issuing from three slender, nodular stems, this orchid requires a surprisingly minimal amount of my attention. My friend, Brenda, gave it to me as a house-warming gift about a year ago when Brad and I moved to Rome, Georgia. Honestly, I've always been a little bit intimidated by houseplants. My first houseplant was a Peperomia with deeply ridged, heart-shaped leaves that looked succulent enough to eat. I received it on my thirteenth birthday from one of my 8th grade classmates. I thought it was a wonderful present, quickly finding it a home on the desk in the room I shared with my younger sister, next to the aquarium which housed our goldfish, Ward and June. It seemed so grown up, having a houseplant in our room. Although I tried my best to follow the care instructions, my little plant soon withered and died, most likely victimized by inadequate sunlight, an excess of Jobe's plant spikes, and aggressive over-watering. Ward and June followed suit shortly afterward, apparently having succumbed to the fish tank's improperly adjusted pH balance. It appeared I wasn't much of a green thumb. Since then, I've had maybe six other houseplants, all of which have met a similar fate, mostly because I can't seem to remember that they need frequent watering.
     When Brenda presented me with this lovely orchid, my heart just about stopped. It was so elegant and graceful, replete with stately stems and sensual blossoms, yet all I could think about was the inevitable demise it would surely suffer in my herbicidal hands. From the looks of it, I assumed this plant would be particularly fussy. Brenda, sensing my obvious reticence over accepting her lush green gift, assured me that this was indeed a low-maintenance plant. "It's an ice cube orchid, Kris. Just give it three cubes of ice once a week, and it'll be just fine!" It sounded too good to be true. How could a spectacular flowering plant like this require so little in the nurturing department? In disbelief, I placed the orchid on a sill in the kitchen, sometimes remembering the weekly watering with ice cubes, but most of the time not. Spring became summer, and the blooms shriveled and dropped, the detritus littering the windowsill. For most of the fall and winter, two bare stems protruded from the tangle of floppy leaves, the air roots spilling out over the sides of the pot as if plotting a daring escape. Those few months were bleak and strange for us. We'd moved to Rome in April so I'd no longer have to commute from Atlanta, and in November, both Brad and I lost our jobs. Dejected and depressed, I forgot all about the orchid. I worked my 90 day notice, finishing at the end of January, and Brad found a new job in Atlanta. Once again, our lives were topsy-turvy, with him commuting and me unemployed, and it was clear that we'd have to move back to Atlanta, just 10 months after moving to Rome.
     I spent most of the end of January and February, packing for our impending move. It took several days to pack up all the non-essentials in the kitchen, and as I started bubble-wrapping the knicknacks on the windowsill, I figured Brenda's poor, neglected orchid would most certainly be a casualty. I took it down and examined it for signs of life. Much to my surprise, there was a new inflorescence, bravely peeking above the leaves, along with a number of buds on the existing columns. I staked the rogue young stem next to one of the taller ones, tossed in three ice cubes, and within a few days, the orchid was in full bloom. That was mid-February, and since then, it has never stopped flowering. Sunday is ice cube day, and I haven't forgotten once. Our kitchen windows get strong morning light, which burned a spot on one of the leaves, so I've started putting the orchid on the counter until the danger of direct sunlight has passed. I feel an odd kinship with this plant: what hasn't killed us has made us stronger. Whether efflorescent or senescent, our basic requirements are minimal. As long as we receive a bit of nutrition, some sunshine, and a little love, we can repair what's broken, and conserve our remaining energy for new growth.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Caveat Emptor, Renter Style

Out of the frying pan, into the fire
Renting has left so much to be desired
An ideal situation, now gone south
We naively trusted the words of mouth.

Hornswoggled, bamboozled, we're rendered dazed
Our good faith evaporates in the haze
Of documentation, or lack thereof
Our word against theirs, when push comes to shove.

The deposit we lost is being used
To fix blemishes of which we're accused
Defects, mind you, that were already there
The result of decades of wear and tear

The song of the banjo has come to mind,
With a porcine squeal, no longer confined
Outrageous! Contemptible! What to do?
When you've bitten off far too much to chew?

Our only recourse is this lesson learned
Trust not in your lessor, for you'll be burned
Notate and photograph every square inch
To save yourself from a similar pinch.







Sunday, April 22, 2012

Within The Bark

     It's a chilly, grey, windy, rainy Atlanta spring Sunday morning. The overcast sky is tense and opaque, its cloudy veil silently obscuring the sun so that I can't tell where the ambient light is coming from. In this dark light, there are no shadows: all contrast is blurred. I can barely discern the outline of that clever rascal squirrel, the grey-brown one who lives in the old oak tree outside my kitchen window, the same one who regularly teases my dogs. He melts into the tree's trunk, perfectly camouflaged amidst the gnarls and knots, a localized, pulsating vibration concealed within the bark. Unless he's scurrying along the top surface of a branch or up the side of the trunk, it's impossible to tell where he ends and the tree begins. It's as if they've become married in this luminous haze.
     I feel very much alive. My eyes are welling up with tears, and I don't know why. Everything is just so beautifully complex. There are many old scars on the tree from where branches were once broken or pruned, none of which will ever be healed. Unlike us, a tree can't replace its injured tissue. In an effort to preserve equilibrium, it will form a graceful callus boundary around the wound to seal it off as it redirects the flow of nutrients to viable structures within its tree body. A tree fixes itself without ever repairing an injury, but its seemingly inert bark contains a secret, invisible to the naked eye. Just beneath its dead outer layer lies a delicate living network of phloem vessels which delivers sugar to the rest of the tree, dutifully prepared by leaves that photosynthesize the sun's light into stored chemical energy. Like our skin, bark is alive, yet dead.
     A tree grows itself, and we grow ourselves, and growth is to awakening as quiescence is to peaceful slumber. Trees grow up and out, while we grow up, then out. How do we know when to grow, and when to stop growing? My skin grows until it dies; it stays with me for as long as I need it, and when it's no longer useful, I part with it, layer by layer. Every dead cell is replaced with one that's new. Unlike the tree, I can repair and regenerate most of what's been injured. Similar, yet strikingly different in our complexity, this tree and I share an intimate knowledge of our inner workings beyond the cellular level. I don't know how or why we do it, but the tree just trees and I just be. The bark and skin house the wondrous mysteries within, and I'm left wondering if some ancient fragment of me is also tree.
    

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Accidental Nomads: An Exercise In Impermanence

     It's been approximately two months since Spartacus and I moved back to Atlanta, a move which occurred just 10 months after our relocation from Atlanta to Rome, Georgia. We both own homes in Atlanta, which we've been forced to rent because the current market is so poor for sellers. Neither of us is turning a profit. Our loft in Rome was a rental, and after renting for a couple of months, we mutually agreed never to become homeowners again. It was nice to know that if something broke, the landlord was responsible for fixing it. Our old "it's always something" homeowner mentality quickly gave way to a sense of being carefree: renting seemed like a pretty worry-free way to live. After living in Rome for 10 months, our job situations changed, and we prepared ourselves to move back to Atlanta. When we found our place here in Kirkwood, we were ecstatic. Not only did this loft have incredible square footage and unique open space to accommodate all of our worldly possessions, it was located in a dog-friendly, super cool part of town. There are restaurants and shops within walking distance of our complex, an old elementary school which contains 21 separate units. Our unit, which once housed the library, is by far the biggest in this complex. We've found our neighbors to be very friendly and laid back, and have enjoyed hanging out with them in the evenings, drinking wine and sitting around the outdoor fire pit, while our dogs play together in the sprawling fenced communal front yard.
     There's been just one nagging problem. We signed the lease knowing that the owner of this property really wanted to sell, even though she'd certainly take a loss on it. Although she agreed to  rent it to us, she kept it on the market. The terms of our lease specified that if an offer was accepted on the property, we had the right of first refusal, and if we decided not to purchase it, we'd have 60 days to move out. Before we signed the lease, the listing agent (who also happens to be our landlord) assured us that this place was receiving absolutely no traffic, and that it wasn't likely to sell because it was so over-priced. Nevertheless, we've had a parade of potential buyers coming through since the weekend we moved here. This time around, being a renter has really sucked. It's hard to describe how intrusive it is to have people coming to look at the home you've just moved into, sometimes showing up at the door without any warning. When we previewed this loft, the walls were painted an ugly brick red, making the place seem much smaller than its actual square footage. We plunked down $900 to have it painted white, which really opened up the space. I believe that this modification, along with our eclectic, funky furniture and excellent understanding of arranging such a massive, undefined living area has probably contributed to an offer being made and accepted within the last 48 hours. Unfortunately, we've made this space irresistible. We learned of the offer last night, right before we went to bed. Needless to say, I've barely slept a wink.
      This may come as a surprise, but being a successful temporary dweller is accompanied by a modicum of intellectual and spiritual work, specifically with not becoming too attached to people, places or things. It's an exercise in impermanence. We've known since day one that this place could be sold out from under our feet, and perhaps that's why we still haven't completely unpacked. That being said, there are very few places for rent in our area with this kind of square footage or pet-friendliness. Our previous loft had 4500 square feet. We've actually had to get rid of brand new furniture in order to fit our stuff into this 2700 or so square foot space. If we were to move to the standard 1200-1500 square foot loft, we'd have to get rid of even more things, all within a 60 day period. That's do-able, I suppose...I could probably sell those items on craigslist. Stuff is stuff, and we've got too much of it. I'm all about down-sizing. However, our main concern right now is Simon and Lilly. Because they are large breed, high energy dogs, they need an enclosed area in which to run and chase birds and squirrels every day. My house in Atlanta had a big, fenced in side-yard, easily accessible through a doggie door. Our place in Rome had a private courtyard with a decent sized-strip of grass, and plenty of room for them to run around safely. The properties I've been browsing online this morning don't have anything like that. We would be reduced to leash walks with occasional ventures to a local park, and even then, Simon and Lilly couldn't be off leash. Here, we have a private courtyard, as well as an expansive, enclosed front yard. Our dogs get along well with other dogs in this complex, and they are all free to run the length of the schoolyard, racing and frolicking to their hearts' content. Basically, it's dog paradise.
     Spartacus and I have some talking and thinking to do. If we move again, this will be the third time we've relocated in just over a year. The last move nearly killed us. Aside from the obvious hassle and expense, moving is physically taxing when you're 50, even if you have someone else move the big pieces of furniture. We filled up two 17 foot trucks with stuff, not counting the 27 foot truck packed by Two Men & A Truck. We sold our washer and dryer to our previous landlord because we wouldn't be needing them here. Not all rentals provide those appliances. What to do, what to do. Because we each still owe a fair amount on our mortgages, I'm not sure if we'd qualify for a loan. We've both just changed jobs. I'm only working 3 days a week at a quarter of my previous income. Neither of us has cash on hand to pay for this place. Even if our offer was accepted, we're at the mercy of the banks who've done nothing but screw the American public for the last decade, making it ridiculously difficult for people with good credit to get a loan.
     Although the thought of moving again is sickening, I am trying to remain calm and in the moment. We've enjoyed it here, but this is not the only place in the world where we could find happiness. We happened upon it by accident; in fact, we almost overlooked it. I'm relatively sure that somewhere in this metropolis, there's an even cooler place with an updated kitchen, modern wiring, and a second bathroom, waiting to be discovered. What's bugging us both is the thought of being nomads again so soon. It's not so much the anticipation of having to repack everything; it's more the feeling of being unsettled, the idea of not having a physical space to call home, the inconvenience of living out of a suitcase, the loss of people and surroundings which have now become comfortably familiar. Letting go of physical attachments is easier said than done. With renting, you give up a certain degree of autonomy. You have to ask permission to paint the walls and hang your paintings. You're not really free to do whatever you want to make your space more livable; prior approval is required. As much as I hate to admit it, there is something to be said for having a place to hang your hat, a home to call your own. I've made my home in many different places over the years, and deep down, I know that home is where the heart is. Believe me, I'm trying to reassure myself that home can be anywhere and everywhere. I only wish anywhere and everywhere were a bit more portable.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Unsubscribed: An Unapologetic Pursuit of Happiness

     Last night, I had a vivid dream that my tongue discovered a hairline fracture in one of my front teeth, very close to the gumline. The initial discovery of the slightly wiggly tooth was accompanied by a state of disbelief and mild panic, and the tooth itself was quite long, much different from the way my incisors look in real life. I don't know how the tooth broke. It seemed to be clinging to itself, trying not to break off completely. What I was most worried about in the dream was the time interval I knew I was facing, waiting for the tooth to be replaced. It wasn't fixable. I remember looking into a mirror, knowing that although the tooth looked deceptively normal from a distance, it was only hanging by a thread. Considering the fact that I've spent a lot of time recently, contemplating abstruse concepts like detachment, letting go, and impermanence, this dream came as no surprise. Just like my tooth, I'm dropping out.
     I'm not sure if it was the dream that motivated me, but this morning, I unsubscribed from nearly every list of political, cause-related, and shopping e-mails I receive. The shopping e-mails were easy: I'm not much of a shopper. I buy what I need, if and when I need it. This is probably one reason why I'm not good at using coupons, although now that I'm only working part-time, I may have to re-evaluate their utility. The political and cause-related sources of e-mail go a little deeper. For years, I've received almost daily updates from Move.On.org, Credo Action, and NRDC, probably as the result of a number of petitions I've signed. I'm tired of being yelled at, having my awareness raised, stirred to respond, and constantly nudged into action. I feel like I'm in boot camp. It's not that I don't care about these issues, but being an armchair activist just isn't my bag. Social networking is inundated with call-to-action organizations: left-wing, right-wing, radical, liberal, conservative, and every flavor in between. Every time I log onto Facebook, I'm urged to "do" something. Despite their seemingly diverse focuses, these organizations all have something in common. They all promote an agenda. Regardless of the issue at hand, they all employ some form of manipulation, usually through shocking videos or poignant photography, to gain support. I'm not sure what they really accomplish, aside from further divisiveness and polarization among the susceptible public. If we're not alarmed, we're labeled as superficial or apathetic. After all, we're being told what things we should think about and how we should think about them, so it's really a no-brainer, right? We're encouraged to spread awareness, to elevate others to our same level of concern, and to make sure everyone knows how committed we are to Cause X, Y, or Z, all from the comfort of our own homes.
     I'm not dissing activists. I maintain a modicum of respect for people who believe passionately enough in their causes to organize fund-raisers and protests, the real grass-rootsers, so to speak, especially if their passion comes from the heart. I'm just not one of them. In the scheme of things, my opinions aren't important enough to bother people with. I quietly support research on treatments for cystic fibrosis and breast cancer through monthly donations, make a monthly pledge to NPR, and donate yearly to my national and state-level anesthesia political action committees, as well as physicians for national health care; that's the extent of my involvement. Anyone who knows me has a pretty good idea of where I stand on the major issues. I don't feel the need to engage in debate about my core values. I don't enjoy talking about politics or religion; there are much more interesting things to talk about. I suspect that there are lots of people attached to causes because they're in dire need of an identity, or as a way to project their emotions. I'm not a fan of black versus white; there are two or three or four sides to every issue. Identifying strongly with a cause is admirable in many ways, but it also carries the risks of intolerance to opposing views, emotions masquerading as truth or reason, and tunnel-vision, making a zealous liberal indistinguishable from a fanatic conservative. In the end, actions always end up speaking louder than words. Passionately enjoying life is the really the only kind of activism that holds any interest for me. I've reached a point in life where I feel very connected, alive, and compassionate with a detached sense of awareness, and I'm going with it. Happiness is transformative and contagious. Although being happy for ourselves is pretty amazing, being happy for the happiness of others is even more rewarding. Everyone deserves to be happy, but it's a personal choice. I suppose happiness is my agenda, and I don't need a subscription to pursue it. I can't change the world, nor do I wish to. It has a way of changing itself. In the meantime, I'll keep doing my part to enjoy the time I have here. Now, that's a contribution that won't cost me a cent.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

As Ancient As We Are New

     Earlier this week, I came across a couple of provocative blogs, both addressing the topic of segregation. One was written by a black South African woman, and the other, by an Irish Catholic man. Although they focused on different aspects of segregation, the former concerned with issues regarding race and interracial relationships, and the latter with those pertaining to religion, both of them provided ample food for thought. Why are we, as humans, so tenaciously committed to division, to isolating and insulating ourselves not just from one another, but from the world around us? When does our sense of separateness begin? What is its origin? How do we forget that we belong to our world, that we are not insignificant cosmic interruptions?
     If matter is neither created nor destroyed, then we are all at least as old as this planet from which we emerged, unique expressions of the earth we share. We are as ancient as we are new. In that sense, we've always been hanging around; sometimes as sentient creatures, at other times not. Before we were sentient, what did we know? In the absence of self, who are we? As babies, we have no awareness of  "me" and "you", "mine" and "yours." These concepts, which are introduced by our parents and continually reinforced by society, oppose our innate sense of belonging and interdependence, defining boundaries which were originally quite blurry (if they even existed at all). We are forced to individuate. In developing a "self", we unknowingly become distantly familiar caricatures of who we once were, disconnected and afraid of our own shadows, in constant competition with everything and everyone that surrounds us, even the people we love the most. Contaminated by our perceived insignificance, we settle into the belief that we are very much alone in this world. Because we feel isolated and vulnerable, we alienate ourselves. In our efforts to protect "me" and "mine", we become intolerant, judgmental, and resentful. Because we've forgotten our impermanence, existence becomes a fight to survive. 
     Within all of us lies an apprehension that is as old as the universe itself, an awareness so blasphemous and unnerving that we labor tirelessly throughout our lives to conceal it, for if we were to acknowledge it, our covers would be blown. We'd discover we're not nearly as ordinary or alone as we'd suspected, that we're not merely cosmic nuisances, but true marvels of the primordial natural process. Everywhere is home. Everywhere, we belong. Like all organisms, we live, grow, and die. We're at once old and new, growing and receding, coming and going. Strangely enough, this knowledge is prescient: we knew it as infants. It's been accessible to us all along. We matter. We don't have to prove ourselves. We don't need approval. We share the same "stuff" in the same space. We're of equal ground. In this great mystery of life, we're more infinitely connected than we can ever know.
     
    


    
   

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Tree Outside My Kitchen Window

      Outside my kitchen window stands a majestic old oak, its thick trunk draped with flowing ripples of coarse bark, arranged into soft folds like pleats in a velvet ballgown, its gracefully downward curving lower branches heavy with the memory of fat squirrels and nimble schoolchildren, its topmost branches elegantly reaching for the warm sun, its gnarled and outstretched roots absorbing minerals and water from Georgia's red clay surface. Its canopy glistens with myriad-hued emerald leaves, which at this moment are busily photosynthesizing sugar from absorbed sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, breathing out a collective sigh of life-giving oxygen as they nourish the hungry tree. Beneath the canopy lies cool shade. Within its stately branches, the birds and squirrels who tease my dogs and scamper across my metal roof in the wee hours of morning find ample housing and shelter. The massive tangle of roots stabilizes both tree and soil. Seemingly obedient to the force of gravity, the roots pull downward into the ground, while the rest of the tree pushes itself up from its branch tips, the result of context sensitivity to hormones controlling cell expansion. The tree branches and buds with new leaves, creating more surface area for absorption while providing shade and breaking the impact of rain droplets on the earth below. In autumn, these leaves will die, their life cycle complete. Like fallen jewels, they'll blanket the ground in a spectacular riot of color and decomposition, offering a sweet feast to the multitudes of bacteria and fungi that inhabit the soil, laboring to return elemental carbon from this leafy detritus back into the atmosphere. This tree shapes itself, feeds itself, grows itself: it exists in complete harmony with itself and its surroundings. It bends with the light and under the weight of its own branches. It sequesters what's dead, what's no longer useful, conserving its energy to sustain life from within, and in doing so, it gives life without. How does this tree know how to tree? Its full mystery is impossible to comprehend. It just goes with the flow.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Elegant Simplicity of Chaos

     I've recently become cognizant of a buzzing sort of hum. Today, I determined that it's the upright freezer which sits between the kitchen counter and the stainless steel worktable, atop which our microwave oven is perched. Because this freezer was kept outside or downstairs in our previous dwellings, I'd never noticed that it runs almost continuously. It's a quiet, mechanical vibration, almost like a prolonged exhalation, a breathing out of thermal energy. Within its compressor, refrigerant is exposed to high air pressure, converting it from a gas to a liquid. As the liquid refrigerant flows through an expansion valve, the air pressure drops, evaporation stops, and heat is released, producing cool air as the refrigerant evaporates in this low pressure system. A thermostat senses the internal temperature of the freezer, shutting off the motor and the flow of refrigerant when it reaches a certain temperature. It's a somewhat inefficient process.

     According to the second law of thermodynamics, heat energy won't spontaneously flow from a colder body to a warmer body; this process requires a certain amount of work. The ratio of useful work to total work done, expressed as a percentage, is what determines the efficiency which with a heat engine transfers heat. Heat can be defined as disordered energy. Entropy is a measure of the amount of energy unavailable to do work within a system, its tendency to progress from a state of order to disorder, a reflection of the system's multiplicity. The more disorder there is in the system, the higher its state of entropy. In other words, entropy is a measure of what we don't know about a system's behavior, all the cognitive possibilities regarding its state at a given point in time. For some of us, the idea of entropy conjures up images of chaos, the end of the world as we know it, a system spinning hopelessly out of control, careening into oblivion. Thinking of it from this perspective, a consideration of chaos is almost TMI (too much information). The truth of the matter is that, as sacrilegious as it sounds (especially if you recall anything you learned in high school physics class), without chaos and its paradoxical influence on entropy, the second law of thermodynamics couldn't possibly exist.

     The first law of thermodynamics, which seems pretty intuitive, states that the total energy of an isolated system, both its ordered and disordered energy, is conserved over time. It's an observation that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed by anything in the physical universe: they merely change place and form. The quantity of matter and energy remain constant. Consider what happens in a fireplace. A lighted match applied to a log results in combustion, producing fire which releases the wood's potential energy in the form of light and heat, transforming the log into ashes and smoke. Obviously, this law begs the question, "If nothing natural can create or destroy matter or energy, what or who created them? Where exactly does all this matter and energy come from, and how did it get here?" That's a topic for another day. Needless to say, even young children have relatively little difficulty grasping this concept.

     The second law of thermodynamics, the law of increased entropy, states that while the quantity of matter and energy of an isolated system remain constant over time, its quality will gradually deteriorate, resulting in energy that is unusable, increasing randomness and disorder within the system. It is a comparison of order with disorder. This law states that, for any cyclic process, the entropy of an isolated system (like the universe) will increase. Time's "arrow" predicts that an isolated system will progress irreversibly from one that is orderly to one that is more disorderly, with equilibrium being equivalent to maximum entropy. Accordingly, entropy cannot decrease with time. If I clean and organize my house today, I know that by the end of the weekend, various objects, such as shoes, clothes, and the television remote, will have found new and often interesting places to reside, very different from that earlier point in time. It's a simple matter of statistical mechanics. One of the problems with this second thermodynamic law, especially given the fact that it is rooted in mechanics, is that it directly violates the mechanical principle of reversibility which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction!

     Maybe the problem lies in our definition of disorder. In assessing a situation, we tend to compare what's considered ideal with what's actually occurring, what we think should happen with what is happening. We regard things and events that don't seem to be in their proper place as disorderly because they weren't necessarily what we'd predicted or hoped for. I don't know how or why the television remote ended up on top of the refrigerator. Now that I've found it, it doesn't seem important enough to investigate--I'll just chalk it up to someone else's forgetful behavior and spend the afternoon, feeling mildly annoyed. It's a mismatching of rigid expectations with the inevitability of everything that's possible.

     Within a system, phase space is the set of all its possible states, all the possible values of its variables. If we know the state of the system at a given time, this can be represented by a point in phase space. Since a system is typically comprised of many components and variables, it cannot be fully known. We assign probabilities and likelihoods, based on what we do know. This incomplete knowledge can be represented by a probability distribution of points in phase space. With time, each point in phase space will move. For example, at a given point in time, I might bake a blueberry cake, using a known quantity of blueberries and batter, poured into a Bundt pan. This cake represents a certain known portion of phase space. Assuming that the blueberries are dispersed uniformly throughout the batter within the pan, I can generate assumptions about where the blueberries are positioned within the batter. This is probability. Although I know that the blueberries are somewhere inside that cake, but not exactly where, their precise locations represent an infinite number of possibilities. Some blueberries could have sunk to the bottom or floated to the top, some could be clumped together, and some could be evenly distributed, but only on one side of the pan. The lack of information regarding possibility within this system is its entropy, which is related logarithmically to the volume of the batter. The other big problem with the second law of thermodynamics lies in its assertion that entropy increases with time. This doesn't seem to hold true for the baking cake. If I dove inside it right now, I'd see that the blueberries were changing position, rising from the bottom atop air bubbles, contracting and expanding, moving away from their neighbors, making new blueberry neighbors. Despite all this activity, the system's overall phase space, the set of all its possible states is conserved, and its volume and entropy remain constant over time, posing yet another paradox.

     Believe it or not, this quietly baking cake is in a state of mild chaos. Although the volume of the batter hasn't  changed, its shape certainly has. It's gone from being a gooey mass of wet dough to a firm, crumbly cake. As it rises in the pan, the batter stretches and folds upon itself as a result of heat, moisture, air bubbles, and gluten strands, pushing and pulling, each point inside the volume diverging from neighboring points in exponential fashion, its structure becoming more complex with each passing moment. The cake is behaving like a fractal, the result of time evolution occurring within the phase space of the Bundt pan. Fractals are objects that are chaotic in space, rough-edged, geometric figures which may or may not display self-similarity, the common denominator being that they cannot be simplified by analyzing them into successively smaller parts. Our bodies are prime examples of fractals: we can't be "reduced" under a microscope, no matter how powerful the lens. It is this "controlled" chaos which complicates (and defies) a cogent explanation of the universe in terms of elementary particles, for every particle is made up of smaller particles, which conceivably are composed of even smaller particles. 

     Another cool illustration of chaos is the "butterfly effect." By flapping his wings somewhere across the world, a butterfly can affect the weather on another continent at some point in the future. This is the same time-related chaos seen in the cake. Blueberries which were kissing  in the batter each follow their own paths; with time, they move away from one another, distancing themselves from one another, while forming new alliances. Each blueberry's motion affects that of another. The uncertainty contained within these blueberries, no matter how small initially, grows exponentially with time, and eventually, "it will become so large that we will lose all useful knowledge of the state of the system. Even if we know the state of the system very precisely now, we cannot predict the future trajectory forever...we will have to give up at some point."(Baranger)

     It is our natural tendency as humans to despair over our lack of knowledge, especially when there is a very strong possibility that we may never fully understand some things. We tend to be reductionistic in our thinking. We become overwhelmed by the complexity of situations, where even simple questions seem to have ridiculously complicated answers. The state of not knowing leaves us feeling powerless. But, our logic is full of holes. Instead of marveling at the elegant simplicity of chaos, its infinitesimal patterns within patterns, its infinite possibilities, we become frustrated and defensive, and resort to attempting to smooth out the rough edges. We confuse chaos with complexity: we make chaos complex. Although the two are related by a requirement for nonlinearity, what's chaotic isn't necessarily complex. To frame it another way, the fact that we're complex adaptive systems capable of changing to cope with our environment, as well as altering our environment to suit ourselves, implies that we're chaotic part of the time, but not vice-versa.

     Aside from being nonlinear, what makes systems complex? Just as we are greater than the sum of our parts, the constituents of complex systems are interdependent. Allowing the helium to leak out of a balloon doesn't change the properties of the remaining gas, and though you end up with a balloon that no longer floats, the system isn't profoundly impacted. Letting the air leak out of our lungs through a bullet hole in the chest, however, would lead to life-threatening, potentially irreversible complications.  In this case, altering just one variable can result in demise of the entire system. We are interconnected, inseparable from what we're made of, from what surrounds us. The structure within complex systems spans several different scales. Our heads, trunks, arms, and legs are composed of organ systems which arise from the formation of organs out of various tissues comprised of cells which contain organelles that manufacture chromosomes out of DNA crafted from a string of nucleic acids joined by molecular bonds created by atoms bumping into each other, their subatomic particles whizzing and whirring about, concealing entire universes within their infinite substance. Because of this particular feature, complex systems are capable of emerging behavior, an interplay between constituents which can't be explained by the function of the more organized constituents themselves. We don't walk just because we have legs inside our jeans; we do it because they're made of our genes, which also helped make all our other "parts."

     The ability to "self-organize" arises from these qualities of structure and emergence. Self-organization is the opposite of chaos. Although our DNA contains the same basic nucleic acid building blocks as other animals, our cells are programmed to differentiate into those of human beings. Herein lies the major difference between chaos and complexity. While complex systems always contain several scales, those that are more diverse, such as subatomic particles may tend toward chaotic behavior, while those that are a notch above, such as cells, might demonstrate self-organization. This property of non-linear systems, the dividing line between chaos and non-chaos, is the edge of chaos. It's the point at which external controls change to permit modification and adaptation, making self-organization more likely to take place on a broader scale, influenced by the degree of cooperation and competition between scales. We're only as strong as our weakest link.

     In our haste to smooth out the rough edges, we're actually increasing a system's entropy. It's like drawing a line around a sea sponge; in doing so, we effectively increase its volume by ignoring all its holes--we make the sponge bigger! The fractal nature of the sponge, which was created by chaos, freaks us out because we can't keep track of its details. Instead of grooving on this natural chaos, our go-to remedy is to smooth the sponge's volume to the point where we hadn't yet lost sight of its branchpoints of differentiation, the trade off being "a loss of knowledge, [an increase in] the effective volume of distribution, [and] hence the entropy."(Baranger) In similar fashion, we make our problems in life bigger. Chaos makes things messy. Because we become frustrated and overwhelmed, we give up trying to "know" the situation at hand. The good news is that because of chaos, our dimensionless lack of knowledge (entropy) is completely subjective: it has nothing to do with our understanding of fundamental laws of the behavior of particles. Although some would argue that entropy can be quantified and expressed as absolute certainty in the presence of large enough numbers, this certainty is still based in probability. It's really not objective. In life, we can't be absolutely certain of anything. All we can do is take a moment to enjoy the sweet smell of chaos.
Baranger, M. Chaos, Complexity, and Entropy: A Physics Talk For Non-physicists. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Spectacular Side of Ordinary

     I've recently discovered an amusing, quirky sketch comedy called "Portlandia." In this show, Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein write the sketches and play the majority of the characters who are usually "coupled" in some way. I won't bore you with details from the episodes I've watched, other than to say that Fred and Carrie brilliantly capture the essence of stereotyping which seems to pervade American society, accurately portraying the common thread of narrow-minded, passive-aggressiveness so typical of individuals who are prone to making generalizations about entire groups of people, be it a race, a profession, or a particular subculture. The propensity for stereotyping seems pretty universal, sparing no group in particular. Some of the most outwardly liberal and generous people I know are guilty of stereotyping, carelessly labeling and even berating others, often based upon very limited observation or actual experience with the people they are categorizing. A startling lack of personal insight seems to accompany this hair-trigger tendency toward judgment. It's the common denominator of self-righteousness. While I think it's fair to say that most of us have been guilty of stereotyping at one time or another during our lives, the acquisition and development of true receptiveness or open-mindedness is incompatible with such behavior.
    Yesterday, my son, Nick, and his girlfriend, Haley, and I had an interesting conversation, following a social network interaction I had with a close relative who publicly denounced the medical profession for its lack of altruism. Because this person knows I'm a physician, the comment stung, initially making it difficult not to take what was said personally. According to this person, the only altruistic physicians are those who volunteer overseas or donate their time and skills in free clinics, those who work for job satisfaction instead of money. Although she's entitled to her opinion, I heartily disagree. Based on my experience, altruism is alive and well in the United States, but we've become so jaded that, in the absence of publicly aired, dramatically displayed gestures of goodwill or selflessness, we tend to overlook its more subtle presence. Haley wondered, "How can you make a statement like that unless you personally know every physician in the United States?" This sounds simplistic, but it's a really great question. Unless we know what makes every individual in a particular group tick, applying broadly generalized statements regarding one's character, based on a limited number of observations of the group under scrutiny, is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater: we discard what's indispensable along with what's superfluous. Furthermore, working for job satisfaction is no more altruistic than working for less money, as neither quality implies disinterested selfless concern for the welfare of others. I personally know physicians who have accepted less pay in an attempt to escape big alimony payments, as well as those whose job satisfaction stems primarily from the love of science and technology, not from their commitment to the well-being of others. Is it accurate to classify these less well-compensated, job-satisfied physicians as any more altruistic than those who happen to be among the scores of dissatisfied, high-earning docs I know who've volunteered in Haiti and Japan? Across professions, there are plenty of folks whose volunteerism is motivated by a need for recognition or secondary gain, not benevolence or altruism.
     Altruism is a hard-to-define form of emotional intelligence, which stems from empathic love and compassion. Depending upon one's acculturation, specifically with regard to the treatment of "self", altruism can mean loving one's neighbor more than oneself, or loving others as oneself. Genuine self-concern and selfless concern for others are not mutually exclusive; they are the two faces of empathy. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another, to understand and share in the feelings of someone else. It is one of the cornerstones of compassion, which is a wish for others to be free of suffering. According to Nick, compassion is a state of pure, unconditional love, and love can be defined as the desire for others to be happy. Because most of us have been conditioned to reject ourselves as insignificant cosmic blips, instead of marvelous focal expressions of the entire universe, we view ourselves as individuals, as isolated and separate entities from everything and everyone around us. As we become more self-conscious, we "forget" who we are. It's sort of ironic: in regarding ourselves as peripheral, we become incredibly self-centered. The genesis of suffering lies in this distinction between self and other, forcing us to cling desperately to our egos and all our attachments, a self-imposed exile from our natural unity and interdependence, a denial of I and We. It's no wonder we become jealous and resentful of others: it's become a matter of Us and Them. Here's a question: if we don't care for ourselves, how can we truly care for others? It is kind regard, not disregard, for ourselves which permits us to fully experience altruistic love and compassion for others. Altruism is incompatible with jealousy and resentment; its basis is unconditional love. This kind of love is not like good china or crystal, reserved only for special occasions; it exists to lavish upon both I and We, as often as needed.
     With regard to the problem of stereotyping, maybe it, too, manifests from the same lack of empathy which provides fodder for the green-eyed monster. In being critical and unaccepting of ourselves, e.g. "I'm such an idiot!" or "I'm so ugly!", we become so paralyzed in self-loathing that there is little energy left for attending to the needs of others. In other words, the way we treat other people is a reflection of how we treat ourselves. We may put on a good show of seemingly selfless acts of kindness, to which are inevitably attached an expectation of reciprocity or recognition, or align ourselves with some sort of benevolent, humanistic cause, but eventually, the contempt we have for ourselves is transformed into contempt for others. A car doesn't function well, running on fumes and neither do human beings.
     Our ability to appreciate the subtleties of altruism is a function of what our conscious minds ignore. In paying so much attention to what's extraordinary, we neglect what's in between. The media inundates us with heroic tales of self-sacrifice, which simultaneously inspire us and produce a sense of inadequacy, to the point where we forget about everyday heroes, people like you and me. Here again, we seem content to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The truth is that we are all "gems." In defense of my profession, I am proud to recognize the intern who "goes to see the patient", instead of handling a problem over the phone, the resident who stays late to grieve with a family, the attending who takes the time to delight in the birth of a newborn, long after the epidural's been placed. They embody the spectacular side of ordinary, calling no attention to themselves, quietly going about their work. It is they, and not the saintlike or greedy outliers who are the constants, the silent majority, the gems.



Monday, April 2, 2012

Before We Found Words

     Until recently, the most interaction I've had with infants and young children has been in the clinical setting, usually around Christmas or in the summertime. These are the times of year when otolaryngologists typically perform lots of tonsillectomies, myringotomies, and adenoidectomies on their pediatric patients. Those of us who provide anesthesia for these little ones find pediatric anesthesia somewhat challenging, and sometimes, a little frightening. It takes a special personality, and plenty of medicine, to engage (and render cooperative) a child who's about to undergo anesthesia. Although pediatric anesthesia isn't my subspecialty, I've always enjoyed this age group of patients. For the most part, they're refreshingly honest and devoid of pathological anxiety: what you see is what you get. Because they are too young to comprehend all the devices we have to attach them to in the operating room before we render them unconscious, we use neologisms to explain what we're doing. When we neologize, we invent words or phrases to describe something which is already "named." For example, a pulse oximeter finger probe becomes a "finger light", a tightly squeezing blood pressure cuff gains acceptance as a "muscle tester", and EKG pads are "heart stickers." These newly coined words seem to give devices a life of their own, as if we're inviting them to come and play. With children, understanding the function of machines and medications comes secondary to the actual sensory experience; what they care about is how something tastes, looks, feels, sounds, and smells, what it will do to them, instead of for them.
     My twins, who are now almost 22 years old, had a "secret" language until they were almost three. Although Nick and Rory seemed to comprehend the language of adults, they'd respond to our questions with a string of neologisms which were intelligible only to the two of them. (The private language of children is called idioglossia, which often contains neologisms. Cryptophasia refers specifically to the secret language of twins). Their father and I began to wonder if they were developmentally delayed. We scratched our heads, wondering what the heck "Goggums" meant. Because they'd been born eight weeks prematurely, it was conceivable that their brains could be running a bit behind schedule. But, none of their other physical milestones were delayed. Both boys seemed active and bright, interacting appropriately with people and objects in their environment; they seemed normal in every way, except for language skills. Shortly before their third birthday, they began talking in complete, non-cryptophasic sentences. Today, they don't remember their twin language at all, but they did manage to retain some of their primal idioglossic ingenuity, my favorite being their corruption of the word "contaminated." Here's a typical yesteryear scenario. If Rory sneezed or coughed accidentally-on-purpose all over Nick in the back seat of the car, we'd immediately hear Nick loudly admonishing, "Rory, stop taminizing me with your germs!" This neologism actually seemed to express a more nuanced and urgent meaning of its original root word. I still think this is absolutely brilliant.
     I've recently started spending a good amount of time with my 4 1/2 year old niece, Jerney. She's delightfully inquisitive, uncannily observant, and candidly, sometimes frustratingly, spontaneous. To put it bluntly, she's brutally honest. Like most young children, her mind is still relatively open to the concept of duality and pure wonderment, where opposites co-exist, instead of being at odds with one another, where the names of things aren't essential in knowing what those things are. To illustrate, Mom and I recently took Jerney on an excursion to the North Georgia mountains to visit Babyland General Hospital, where the Cabbage Patch Kids are "born." About halfway through our trip, she became fidgety in her car seat. Mom suggested that she keep an eye out for horses, and to let us know when she saw a black horse. As we drove past a large pasture, full of all kinds of horses, Jerney excitedly pointed to a "Dalmatian horse." Without even seeing it, I knew from this neologism that she was talking about a spotted Appaloosa. (Real Dalmatian horses, or British spotted ponies, are unique to the UK, and are quite rare). It didn't matter that she hadn't identified the horse by its established name: her primitively communicated observation, based on the presence of spots, intuitively made sense, underscoring the elusive threshold between knowing and understanding. Jerney already knows a lot more than she understands. In this sense, her knowledge is pure and unfettered, stemming from her interactions with everything and everyone around her. Her mind hasn't yet been corrupted by the limitations that accompany understanding.
     Although Jerney is remarkably unfiltered, uncensored, and unspoiled by preconceived notions of how things "should be", there is evidence of social convention creeping into her lexicon. Regarding our trip to Babyland General, Jerney was initially a bit hesitant. You see, to Jerney the word "hospital" has come to mean a place where people get "shots." It's become a "bad" word. She went on to tell us about how she went to the doctor a few weeks ago and "got five shots in my arm." In an effort to reverse this unfortunate word association, Mom and I reassured her that happy things, like babies being born, also take place in hospitals. We reminded her that she was born in a hospital, to which she casually replied, "I know, I was born in Atlanta." Later, Jerney heard Mom use the word "hate" during one of our conversations. Jerney corrected her, saying, "Grandma, you can't say 'hate'! Hate is a bad word!" Apparently, one of her pre-school teachers has told the children in her class not to use the word, "hate." This prompted a brief discussion of how words, in and of themselves, cannot be bad or good; they are just words. We talked about how one word can have many different meanings, and how sometimes, we say we "hate" something, like lima beans, when what we really mean is that we "don't care for" them.
     I think we were all a little surprised that Babyland General looked so much like a real hospital. The front desk is manned by a nurse with a starched white cap. There are doctors and nurses in uniform bustling about, running to "deliveries" that are being stat-paged overhead, caring for these newly "plucked" infants in the nursery. Thankfully, Jerney quickly overcame her fear of "the hospital." She even became a mother that day. After an exhaustive search through cribfuls of wide-eyed, pudgy-faced dolls, she was drawn to Susan Betsy, a newborn baby girl with a shock of blonde hair, wrapped in a pink blanket. During the adoption process, Jerney had to sign papers and take an oath to care for Susan Betsy. Despite our encouragement to consider a different name for her baby, Jerney decided to stick with Susan Betsy. The next day, I received an e-mail from Mom, telling me that Jerney was having trouble remembering the name, "Susan", and was now referring to her doll as "Betsy Lou." Mom described how tenderly Jerney cared for Betsy Lou, even scolding Mom for waking Betsy up. When Mom replied that she didn't hear Betsy crying, Jerney responded quite seriously, "But, I'm a mother now." In Jerney's mind, her experience as a mother seemed to transcend the importance of what her baby doll was actually named; she cared for Susan Betsy and Betsy Lou with equal intensity and devotion.
     The cusp of self-consciousness is heralded by the development of communication skills. As babies, we experience people and objects in the world around us as a unified whole, without the need for words. Our pleasure or discomfort is expressed by laughing or crying. It doesn't take long for our parents to recognize from the inflection and timbre of our crying whether we're hungry or wet or tired. With time and reinforcement, the sounds we hear become organized into words. Words begin to take on meaning, and in an attempt to help others understand what we're feeling and experiencing, we string words together: "Mommy, I'm hungry!" In this pre self-conscious state, we use words to alert others to what it is we're feeling, but haven't yet assigned positive or negative values to them. We're aware of "I", but haven't yet come to view ourselves as entirely separate from our surroundings. We are still very central to what we're experiencing. This is the realm where "Dalmatian" means a spotted dog and a spotted horse, where a hospital is both a happy and sad place, where words aren't "taminized" as being bad or good, where changing your baby doll's name is not much different than changing her outfit: the words themselves mean less than the overall experience. The wisdom of idioglossia is simultaneously incomprehensible and intuitive. It only seems esoteric. Perhaps it's an extension of the wisdom we once knew, the childhood innocence and open-mindedness we spend our lifetimes trying to recover, the knowledge we had long ago, before we found words.

Dedicated to my friends, and former colleagues in anesthesia, Ben Rooke & Wes Wolfer.