Saturday, August 30, 2008

Personal Remains

You can't take it with you, and you won't leave much behind ...

The reason about twenty members of our family congregated last week was to let loose of the final remains of Thomas O'Sullivan, my father-in-law. The site was just up the beach from the immersed rock that marked the spot where his three children had spread the ashes of their mother some years ago. So it seemed right, even though the two of them had been long since divorced.

The first night we climbed over the dunes further up the coast where we could watch the sun go down, its bright glow slowly replaced by a tapestry of stars, with the Milky Way a pale belt from horizon to horizon. It looked "just like the planetarium," according to our granddaughter.

Picnic dinner was consumed by all, a fire built, a circle formed in the dark. We sang a few songs, most notably "The Wheels on the Bus (go 'round 'round 'round)" for the benefit of two-year-old Ella, who was delighted. Our friend from the East also sang us a song in Chinese that his mother had sung to him when he was a child out there on the far side of the planet.

Ella was not the youngest among us, for she was joined by her brand new baby sister, Kalinit, named for a wildflower beloved in Israel -- on yet another side of the world. The presence of all the children, including Tom's seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, provided all the balance of life against death that anyone could have wished.

Next morning with a bare cup of coffee under our belts we made our way back to the beach while it was still chilled from the night before. A pit was dug and decorated with pebbles. Into this Gerry spilled what we call the "ashes," but which are in reality the sandy grit that's left after our minds have become a memory and our flesh has succumbed first to the entropy of death, then the fierce chemistry of the flames, and the bones have been ground to dust. There they lay in state, a small pile of blinding white like the surface of the moon contrasting with the warm tan of the sands surrounding them.

Over them each of his children spoke, first Gerry, then Beth, then Jono. The words they said were personal and intended for the ears of those who were there, but they included some of the many mileposts in his life: Member of the World Federalists, seeking global unity and peace ... participant in think tanks looking for alternatives to World War Three ... involved in some of the first telecommunications between computer networks, the headwaters of the Internet ... on a team that developed the first experimental plasma display ... helping to create the satellites that provided the verification needed for nuclear arms treaties to be signed. Of course in a life like that, there was so much more.

Finally people took handfuls from the pit and walked it down into the surf where the waiting waves lapped it up. Then Mike led us in singing "The Wild Rover," the Irish tune we last heard him sing at his own wedding, and which also seemed appropriate to those who knew Tom. We joined in on the chorus:

And it's no -- nay -- never! (clap clap clap CLAP)
No nay never no more --
Will I play the wild rover?
No never ... no more.
By this time the sun had risen above the cloud bank at the horizon, flashing liquid fire on the waters, making silhouettes of the people there, so bright you could hardly bear to look.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Olympic Fever

I can't help it. I'm a sucker for the Olympics.

It goes back to spending Saturdays with my dad after my parents were divorced. He always did his best to entertain us, my sister and me, on his extremely limited budget. This involved lots of movies, games of miniature golf, visits to various Home and Auto Shows, and hours lounging around the pool. But it almost invariably included a late afternoon session with ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

Every four years, that meant the Olympics. But actually, "Wide World" was a kind of perpetual Olympics, in the way that Disney's Epcot is a perpetual world's fair. We followed all kinds of sports we never would have noticed before, just because that was what we did together. Over time we got to see all the competitors who would be in the next Olympics while they were still working their way up in national and international events. By the time the actual Olympics rolled around we didn't need the "up close and personal" interviews to know the back story, because we'd watched it unfold. We knew them all by sight and first names, the skaters, the swimmers, the luge specialists and ski jumpers, the gymnasts and track stars.

Back then the host was always Jim McKay, and his opening refrain of "the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat" became as emblematic as the trumpet fanfare that accompanied it. It was the era of Greg Louganis, the invincible perfect dive artist, who we watched from his first events as a scrawny kid till the heart-stopping final one many years later, which he won in spite of cracking the back of his head against the dive platform.

This is what's great about the Olympics. There's always a story like that, or several of them. This year we have Michael Phelps surpassing the 36-year record of Mark Spitz -- but back then we had Mark Spitz. Or Wilma Rudolph, astounding everyone with her speed on the track. Or Mary Lou Retton finally besting the East Europeans in gymnastics. Or Bruce Jenner unexpectedly taking the decathlon. Or any number of other names that would make you say "Oh, yeah" if I mentioned them.

It was also the era of the Cold War, and the Olympics was one of the platforms on which the international struggle was played out. The Soviets, their shirts emblazoned with the cryptic "CCCP," were the ones we loved to hate and loved to beat. Not that it was easy, or even possible. Back then US athletes had a lot less support than they do now (unless they played football or baseball or basketball). They pretty much had to train themselves, or be part of an athletic club, and work on their skills in their spare time. They also tended to be under-aged compared to their more sophisticated rivals, because once they grew up they had to retire from sports to make a living.

Their counterparts from the USSR, while technically "amateur" because they weren't in professional sporting events, obviously trained full time under state support. (The rules requiring "amateur" status were eventually abandoned by the Olympic Committee in the 1980's, largely because too many ways had been found to get around them.) Not only that, but they and their Eastern-block cohorts were notorious for rigging the scoring to their advantage, and always seemed able to pull a medal out of a close contest. And of course many contests were not even close. The Soviet and East German and Romanian gymnasts looked flawless, while ours always faltered and stumbled to a distant finish. In many events the US contestants were non-starters.

How times have changed. Now, with Bela Karolyi having transplanted his gymnastic magic to our own fertile soil, and with the US Olympic Committee having mastered the art of supporting their athletes with big corporate sponsorship, suddenly it's between the US and China in the number of medals won, with Russia several notches down. Between the collapse of their old social order, and the dismemberment of the empire splitting their athletes among several new countries like Ukraine and Georgia, the Bear just ain't what he used to be. Representatives of the new Russian Republic even had to undergo the embarrassment of competing in the 1992 games without a national anthem. But in the true spirit of the games, they never got a warmer reception.

So anyway, all these years later here I still am, watching from my own couch now and asking my grandchildren what their favorite events are. (They like gymnastics, swimming, and beach volleyball best.) In this world of vanishing traditions the Olympics seem to be one worth making the time for. You can call it corny, and the nationalism gets a bit thick at times (not to mention the kind of fascistic New World Order thing that's going on now), but in the end what carries the day is not the hoopla but rather the fortitude and sportsmanship of the individual athletes.

It comes down to the same thing the ancient Greeks admired when they created the original Games -- human beings testing the limits of their abilities, challenging the very gods on Olympus. Just when you think you've seen it all, along comes a Michael Phelps or a Dara Torres. Someone unexpected does something impossible, and the world roars. Winners are gracious, and losers take their hats off to them -- life the way we wish it was, the way we sense it could be.

Or how about the other day, when Usain "Lightning" Bolt from Jamaica sailed away with the hundred meter dash, coasting for the final ten while looking behind him to find out why he was all alone. Chills! And always the promise of more to come. This is a guy who might do the 100 in 9 seconds flat someday, if there is ever anyone who will give him a run for his money.

And yeah, I'll be watching for that.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tiny Machines

From the very large to the very small ...

Recently I attended a lecture on nanotechnology at the Miami Science Museum. On the program was a computer animation depicting the incredible variety of molecular processes that take place constantly in every cell of our bodies. You can see it for yourself courtesy of the multimedia project at Harvard University.

Our cells are busy places, each one a veritable city teeming with activity. But what I found most amazing was that these tiny structures, so small that in the animation you can see the individual atoms that make them up, appear to perform purposeful activities. They build things and take them apart, combine with one another to form new shapes -- one of them even appears to walk along a tube while towing a burden on its back, just like a person hiking with a knapsack.

How can this be? These things are far too small to know what they are doing. They certainly don't have brains, because they are just tiny parts of the cells that go to make up a brain. So how can they apparently perform useful work so industriously? Is this evidence of "Intelligent Design," proof that there is a Creator who built these things on purpose?

As tempting as it may be to believe that, the real story is both simpler and even more amazing. A medical friend who studies the function of neurons at the University of Miami explained that, for the sake of clarity, the animation omits all the other molecules that in reality fill up the empty spaces between the "purposeful" structures that they are trying to portray. These other molecules -- a lot of water and other substances, including simple organic compounds -- would appear to have no purpose at all. They simply jostle one another around like people on a crowded subway platform, in constant random motion.

So actually the "purposeful" structures are doing the same thing. They too are constantly being jostled. The only difference is that their shapes happen to flex and fit one another in ways that are productive to the living organism. They have affinities to some structures and aversions to others. When the random motions bring them into contact they stick or repel or combine simply because their molecular attractions compel them to do so. And if that sounds overly simplistic, you should watch this other animation of DNA replication to get an idea of how complex such "random" interactions can become.

It would appear that the Cosmic Designer's real magic trick was to give us laws of physical behavior that make the formation of everything we know inevitable. From atoms to stars and planets, and ultimately to intelligent life, all has been built upon a few simple cosmic rules laid down at the instant of the formation of the universe. From that moment, everything else was implicit.

Looked at in this light, it appears that once you have a livable world all you would have to do to create life would be to mix a soup of the right kind of molecules, apply heat, and stir. In fact, no one even has to stir the soup; it stirs itself. Over enough time, myriads of random collisions will result in simple components banding together to preserve and reproduce themselves. At last, given the opportunity, an intelligence is sure to arise from the murk and lift its gaze to the stars.

We know this result has happened here on Earth because, well, here we are. And no doubt it has happened, and will continue to happen, on an untold number of other planets throughout the cosmos. If not, in the words of Carl Sagan, "it would be an awful waste of space."

Confronted with the ambiguities of quantum mechanics, Albert Einstein famously said that he refused to believe that God played dice with the universe. Well, maybe in reality the dice were loaded, and God was bound to roll a perfect seven.

Even more amazing is that our intelligences have allowed us to discover all this, to make visible to ourselves even the invisible inner workings of our own bodies. Not only that, but we are now designing and building machines of our own choosing at these same tiny molecular scales. Scientists in laboratories are already working with "self-assembling" nano-devices that work remarkably like their biological counterparts. (For the latest predictions, check with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology.)

The line between the living and the mechanical, between the created and the manufactured, between the accidental and the purposeful, soon will be indelibly blurred. Are we the designers or the designed? If it's true that "there is that of God in everyone," then perhaps both are one and the same.

Monday, August 04, 2008

One Day in the Life

The death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn last week has reminded me of my own first encounter with his writing and the historical context in which it took place.

It must have been around 1963 or '64. That makes it just a year or so after the Cuban Missile Crisis had washed around our South Florida neighborhood like a rising flood. We lived only twelve miles from the Air Force base at Homestead where B-52's were on 24-hour alert for World War Three. We had seen fighter jets flying overhead, anti-aircraft rockets towed down our street, and armed guards walking around a supply depot next to our little local shopping center as the military prepared for a possible invasion of Cuba. That was plenty to bring home the reality of the Cold War.

As a car-less student back then I was a prisoner of my suburb. In the summertime my only source for new books was the drug store in that same little shopping center, because even my school library was too far away.

Now, when I say "suburb" please don't think of one of these modern planned communities with spacious and fashionable homes and swimming pools in the back yards. This was one of the cookie cutter developments stamped out by the thousands during the 1950's for working class families, a vast collection of concrete hovels with a bare amount of floor space carved up into three or four bedrooms the size of jail cells.

And when I say "shopping center" please don't think of a modern air-conditioned mall with music in the air and a huge array of trendy shops. This was an L-shaped collection of half-occupied store fronts arranged around an asphalt parking lot. We had a Food Fair supermarket, a dentist, a bar, a barber shop, a hobby store, and down at the far end a drug store complete with soda fountain counter.

The pharmacist and owner of this drug store was the father of one of the kids in my class. He wore a hearing aid, the result of his military service in World War II, and always impressed me as a nice guy. Often it was he himself who would jump behind the counter to pour us a cherry Coke when we stopped in after school, and he always did it with a smile.

I've since wondered if he was the reason that the book rack by the magazine stand had any good books in it. Thinking about it now, it's hard to understand any other way. We were miles from the nearest decent bookstore in South Miami, even farther from a public library. And in this middle of nowhere the only books for sale occupied a single rotating rack with enough space for maybe three or four dozen titles.

How miraculous is it that I found Dostoevsky there? (Not to mention William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and other examples of current Beat literature.) I had just finished my father's old copy of War and Peace, and there was the even more magnificent Crime and Punishment waiting for me at the drug store.

That was also where I found Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, long before it was made into a movie, and gleaned from it the history of the Bolshevik revolution and what it had meant to the people living in Russia. I was excited to find this example of Russian literature happening now instead of back in the 19th century. And the fact that our two nations might be blowing each other off the face of the earth at any moment gave the experience a degree of urgency.

Then one day I came across One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Solzhenitsyn's first account of life in the gulags. If there had been any doubt about the outcome of the 1917 revolution at the end of Zhivago, this was enough to put it to rest. The book's spare and unflinching prose was like a scalpel autopsying the corpse of the dream of Marxism. Here, the doctor said, in this diseased organ, is where the patient met his doom.

Solzhenitsyn had opened a window into the vast mystery of our Cold War adversary, and other rays of light began to trickle out. Soon afterward I was delighted to find something called Ticket to the Stars, by Vasili Aksenov, who was one of a younger generation of Russian writers. The book was not science fiction, despite the title -- rather it was an account of disaffected Russian youth, coming of age in a time and place that could promise them little in the way of a future. They were Russian Beats! I had found the connection to my own counterparts on the other side -- the ones who would grow up and live through the demise of Communism.

For a time I looked in vain for other examples of this literary phenomenon, but the door soon closed as Soviet censorship was reasserted. In the years that followed, Solzhenitsyn was exiled and made his home in New England until the Soviet Union collapsed. My favorite story about that is that there was a general store in the small town he settled in, and the store posted a sign that said, "No directions to Mr. Solzhenitsyn's house." Don't ask us, leave the old guy his privacy. Sounds like he chose wisely where to live.

So now they can do whatever they want over there and write what they want about it -- at least as long as they stay on Putin's* good side. It remains to be seen what new literature will emerge, and if it will equal or surpass the greatness of Russia's past. But for me, I don't think anything will ever top the arrival of Ivan Denisovitch's brutal winter in the midst of my brutal summer, that breath of chilled air that reached me from the other side of the world.

Isn't that what writing does?

*Footnote: To Mr. Putin's credit he attended the memorial service for Solzhenitsyn and at least paid lip service to the value of his work. According to this story in the New York Times he even went on record suggesting that more of the author's books should be in school libraries. No doubt our own libraries could benefit from the same thing.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Time Out

I came down with a cold this week, which means it's time for reflection. For a time I considered trying to finish a post I had started, but looked at through feverish eyes there didn't seem to be any point in pursuing the stringing together of words. This is what illness does: causes a change in priorities. All those things that normally drive us to action in our lives suddenly seem less urgent in the face of survival. Simple existence becomes the important thing.

One of the first signs I notice when coming down with something is a kind of dejected loss of importance, a lack of satisfaction and a loss of energy to attack the tasks of the day. Interestingly enough, this feeling actually lifts once the symptoms are upon me. Coughing and sneezing become the principle features of experience, and medication and rest come to be the only important tasks of life.

There is a poem by John Updike called "Fever" which begins, if memory serves me, "I bring good news from the land of 104 degrees: God exists." The key word there is not God but existence. Since most of us are fortunate enough not to be confronted by mortal disease except at rare (and often terminal) points in our lives, it is probably good for our perspective that we get these periodic reminders of mortality in the form of transient illnesses. Existence is the main thing, life itself, not so much what we do about it.

No doubt next week I'll be feeling like waxing lyrical about something that has caught my attention, something that seems to deserve our notice. But for now it is enough to be able to take a full breath without going into a coughing fit, to be able to rest my head on a pillow without too much of a headache. Life is simple. And how often can I say that?