Friday, June 17, 2011

Mulberries and the Universe 1001; 21

The self-made mulberry tree in my backyard is in fruiting season. It’s a black mulberry, which means the fruits are tasty—white mulberry tastes like cardboard. Black mulberry is quite sweet, no known nutritional value, and its tree grows madly wherever some bird drops it off after processing his/her own nutritional needs. That is how my particular 4-year-old, 12-foot, backyard mulberry came to be: some bird dropped it next to the fence, where I didn’t weed all summer, and it took heart. It apparently believed in itself. After it became a certain size and I noticed it scraggling up, I couldn’t bring myself to harsh its buzz, so I let it grow. It’s a very easy tree to grow; weed trees, my parents called them with a bit of a sniff. Personally, I’m growing some unknown and interesting varieties of weeds in my yard anyway—one looks like a lusciously thornless thistle, and one looks like Jack’s beanstalk before its growth spurt. We’ll see.

So mulberries are sweet spots with darn good shade in just a few years, but they have a couple problems as a food tree: the fruit falls inconveniently all over the ground when ready to eat, and have teensy stems on each and every berry which make strawberry stems look like wimps. Mulberry stems don’t just slide out, they require tugging, and the berries are so small that its not time-practical to clean a lot of them. Even I, with a casual eating attitude, don’t want to just eat the stems—it’d be fiber for a lifetime in one serving, even if they weren’t an unpleasant chew experience. I have at times cleaned enough to throw in pancake batter, and they are wonderful.

Mulberry’s other potential drawback is the method-of-harvesting thing, which after a little research actually has become a high point. If you have ever seen “Under the Tuscan Sun” (one of my personal ‘comfort movies’), you’ve seen the olive-harvest scene, where they lay sheets on the ground and shake the tree, tumbling the ripe-enough olives off the branches. This is exactly the practical and fun way to harvest mulberries, and it makes a good show for the neighbor kids, whom I’m always trying to subtly convert to gardening. I discovered the harvest method by googling “mulberries”. (I also wanted to make sure before eating the berries that this was, indeed, the mulberry I remembered from my distant youth and not some clever imitation that would embellish my final moments on earth with writhing painful gut spasms and foaming at the mouth and stuff. I strongly urge any tasting of unknown things to be presaged by a hell of a lot of checking. Food poisoning is serious business, I can tell you.)

Dad would’ve known with one look at the tree what it was. They were all over our farm. And he grew up as a semi-orphan in several farm households—far distant from his small city home—fostered in exchange for labor. He had plenty of emotional space to fill with wondering about the world around him, and he made excellent observations. Decades after his seedling years, Dad liked to make wine out of anything he could find around the farm in sufficient quantities, including mulberries. His wine was very sweet stuff, but he loved making it for the pleasure of learning about it—and for drinking it. It was very special because it was literally the fruit of his labor, and a personal kind of nourishment, as was nearly everything we consumed on the farm: food on the hoof or from the ground. Americans are awakening to the awareness that our farm-based culture of living off personally-procured food is endangered. Self-sustenance begats gratitude for supplying basic needs, and fast food with no emotional investment encourages obesity. I’m delighted with neighbors who have ducks and chickens in their urban yard—they are in a process of personalizing their food. And learning stuff.

But Dad is no longer around to lend personal experience to the use and fate of my mulberry tree, alas. So the next best thing to his personal experience is my beloved Internet, my personal Library of Alexandria, which has answers or at least opinions and keywords for any question I can pose. I think of Dad when I use it, for matters such as gardening. I think of how so many people, with personally-accrued knowledge like his, have contributed to world-wide personal advice. The internet is a repository of the wisdom of our species. When writing was “the latest” technology, around 6,000 years ago, it was used charily because it was so little understood. To understand it was a privilege of rank and wealth and the luxury of time to learn it. The storied Library of Alexandria was a much earlier attempt to pool all knowledge, back in ( ). As Carl Sagan reverently elaborates in the first episode of the TV series Cosmos, books and written knowledge from all over the known world were aggressively sought and collected by the Library of Alexandria. The collection was vast and esoteric and awesome, and ultimately destroyed by fire.

So I was thinking about Dad, and how he’s no longer my source of hands-on knowledge of things flora. I was thinking about the Library of Alexandria and the incredible collection—not to mention the incredible (incred-bible) lust for gathering all recorded human knowledge which it symbolizes. Unfortunately, both the wonders and the inanities housed in Alexandria’s Library were destroyed, and we will never know them. The sad part is that the collecting of them contributed at least in small part to the destruction of them—they were all in one place and one disaster finished them off. Chances are the individual books, scattered throughout the known world at the time, would never have been unearthed anyway. Still. Sigh.

Then—there’s the Internet. Certainly light-years beyond Alexandria in its stored knowledge (right, Mr. Sagan?). Certainly awe-inspiring. If by some chance the Internet goes down in flames, the chances are good that much of the knowledge on it will be covered and retained, by many dispersed methods. But aside from potential catastrophic destruction of our modern-day unified source, the Internet is a repository of the memory of the human race which I find cosmic, beautiful, and comforting.

Dad is gone, and his wonderful, personal, loving knowledge of the world around him is gone. I can’t call him up and ask him, “Hey, how do I make mulberry wine?” We can’t share the pleasure of reviving and handing over hard-won survival knowledge. But I take a lot of comfort in my fellow humans from this. We all step in to carry on the important stuff. We are all, to some extent, each other’s keeper. We are all the recipients and benefactors of the love and accidents of learning. Alexandria tried, with the technology it had in hand, to take care to preserve knowledge—any knowledge—for the light of learning. Alexandria unfortunately was not built to survive fires and centuries. The Internet has more going for it, although over time its survival will surely be threatened as other technologies are created. And I have no doubt some other forms of preserving knowledge will surface. History says this trait is firmly embedded in humans.

But knowing I can access the personal knowledge of “billions and billions” of minds whenever I want/ need the knowledge is a wonderful thing, an overwhelming thing. People have strived, for millennia, to learn how to survive. We have cared—first through oral stories and then a mere 6,000 years ago by written records—to preserve and share our hard-won testing of knowledge. Our ancestors cared enough to preserve knowledge because they were driven to point the way for their children. They were, if not altruistic, at the least driven to preserve their DNA with their increments of knowledge. For their immediate offspring, the offspring of their neighbors, fellow citizens, and ultimately for their unknown children thousands of years, light-years, distant from them: us.

Carl Sagan posits (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that we, human beings, are descended from the stars; that unfathomably ancient cosmic dust from exploding suns sifted onto our tiny planet from incredibly vast distances and formed the proteins that began life on our planet. So in a way, from the inception of the universe to the moment I spend here typing on my laptop for an internet audience of my vastly-distanced cousins, serendipitous occurrences have wended their way to the subject of the mulberry tree in my backyard, and a way to utilize its fruits.

Because between an exploding sun and earth, things happened. Because some protein strands were once too stubborn or too lucky to quit. Because people learned to relay information, and preserve it. Because every small thing on the planet is unaccountably and intrinsically precious for what it knows. Because everything we strive to understand every day is important. Because some bird left a seed in my yard where I couldn’t easily destroy it. Because my Dad was curious about the world. Because I am his daughter, and because there are children living in the world who can see my actions.

I can freeze the mulberries with the stems in, and look up how to make wine.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Beat Goes On 1001;20

Advice is cheap.  I hand it out sometimes, even though personal experience has shown that Advice can be Hazardous to Friendships.  However, in at least one recent case it earned a nice return.

One of my hobbies is playing acoustic guitar and singing at open mic nights.  Open mic nights are a whole subculture, which I am studying in my capacity as amateur sociologist and philosopher.  An open mic night is an evening at a "venue" provided by a business, and "hosted" by a person who is a musician/singer, and has sound equipment to set-up and share.  S/he shares the equipment with any number of fellow musicians / singers/ songwriters who show up at duly appointed hours to publicly do it musically.  Its a great way to try out songs, get ideas, steal music, meet fellow enthusiasts and have fun--all while stroking our need for attention.  Win/ Win/ Win: for the audience/ business patrons its free entertainment; for the business its free business, for the performers its free fun.  A year or so ago, I discovered there are open mics almost every night of the week in my area.  Communities of players form,who regularly attend the same mics.  To me it's like church, only at night and sometimes in coffee houses, sometimes in bars.  No collections taken, though.

One night at an open mic I handed some free advice to a friend: "capo up a fret or two when youre singing, raise the key youre singing in."  His voice was too low and I couldn't hear his low notes, plus singing a little higher often helps anybody's voice to sparkle.  This is the only advice I ever give about singing. Someone gave it to me years ago and it worked for me.

When I hand out advice the reaction is seldom instant gratitude, although over time said-advice sometimes works well.  I have not always been astute about gracious communication, either, and sometimes irritate people who think they're doing just fine without my input.  But my friend surprised me by saying, "Ok, and I'll give you back some advice."  Here he paused, being a retired social worker and someone who likes to frequently say that he's learned a lot throughout his career about dealing with all kinds of people.  I think he was gauging my reaction to his advice offer.  I must learn that trick.

My reaction looked interested, so he said, "Take drumming lessons."  That was a surprising and somewhat unrelated suggestion, so I looked even more interested.  "It'll help you keep your beat.  Take even 6 months of drumming lessons and it'll improve your singing."  This guy is a percussionist, who obviously believes in his chosen form of musical expression.  His answer was sincere and, as I thought about it, really interesting.  As an amateur singer I strive to improve over time, and I know from feedback that I usually sing too fast, or speed up if I start out slow. Another friend had commented to me once that you could always tell the open mic beginners, because they sing too fast.  (This is great stuff, huh?)  My advisor added, "All you need is a pad and some sticks to get started, and I can loan you some."  My decision scarce needed thinking about--  interesting advice AND free equipment to get started.

So I leaned over two chairs and tapped the back of another regular attendee, who is an experienced professional singer,guitarist, mandolin player, and also--lucky me!--teaches drums.  I explained stuff, and he agreed to teach me drums when I'm ready.  He also agreed with the suggestion that it would take care of my unstable beat issues. 

Between the two percussion advocates, I got excited about trying out Drumming for Voice.  Here I am, at My Age, taking up drums, which 20 minutes earlier had never entered my head.  Heck, Karen Carpenter got her start on drums! I had long been fascinated with my friend's djmbe, doumbek, tambourine, bodhran, and other unusual instruments.  It just hadn't occurred to me that I could or would learn how to use them, myself. 

And the whole idea of learning to pace my singing made me happy. I am an advocate of "Directed muscle action creates concept formation."  Yeah, that.  You know, like when the gorilla in the movie "2001: Space Odyssey"  picks up a stick and randomly whacks stuff, and accidentally hits the big hulking metal phallic-looking shaft that aliens sent to earth during our prehistory heydays, and the gorilla suddenly realizes that he has used the stick as a tool and he's in control.  This scene is actually a good illustration of Russian child psychologist Lev Vygotsky's thesis that children learn through doing stuff.  Like hitting things with sticks.   Our muscles have their own life, and feed their findings to our brain.  Or as neurosurgeon Antonio Dimasio theorizes in his book "Descarte's Error":  We Think Because We Are. (NOT, Descartes, "Cogitus ergo sum"; take that.)   Our brain doesn't figure things out, our bodies figure things out and the brain translates it into the popular media of thoughts, or concept realization.

Recently I've been thinking long on loss of muscle, loss of inspiration, loss of youth, and loss of lots of things.  I guess I fell into the ugly pit of "Old," which is nevertheless a lazy kind of comfort--getting old is an excuse to quit, for some of us wimps.  But some free advice about hitting things with sticks (or hands) has engaged my imagination.  Lifted that old Dark Veil of Disuse.  I even think that learning to rythmically whack things with sticks (or hands) could have some positive metaphorical backwash in my life.  Maybe I'll master The Beat and live more pace-fully.  Maybe, like the gorills in 2001, I'll form some concepts.

Sonny and Cher sang it truely when they sang: And the Beat Goes On...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Little Here, A Little There 1001;19

Romeo and Juliet are the famous, tres young  lovers who die over broken hearts, mixed signals, and other relatively-easily remedied issues which any one could succumb to before we age and get some smarts.  Like:  family opinions can be negotiated, broken hearts can be mended, life can go on. 

However.  In order to learn these great truths, we learn that we have to learn through painful experience.  Tit for tat.  In order to get it, we have to give it up.

Getting older means (we posit) gaining knowledge, wisdom, peace, heartbreak, patience, chutzpah, etc., all for the price of losing a lot of other things: languor, temper, virginity, cortisone, etc.  Some of the things lost are small: eyeglasses, false friends.  Some are a little bigger (depending on how we do the rating): jobs, vision, waistlines.  These losses come gradually over the years, if we're lucky, and we adapt to them.

It seems that the losses get bigger and faster down the road.  Maybe this is not true; maybe it is just that losses become harder to take when the resilience of youth is lost.  Maybe Old Age is another form of adolescence, with the difficulty of adjusting to the awkward growing-into-lifestage--only with Old Age-olescence, its a growing-out of lifestage. 

A salesclerk--who was kindly helping me buy clothes to compensate for my fast-changing self image--and I touched on this topic the other day, between my trips to the changing room.  We initiated our short relationship with a discussion on losing our old "colors"---that changing skin tones and hair colors required us to find other colors to flatter our fading features and shifting muscles and maintain our hold on grooming as we know it in this century (thank God its changed since the last century, with bouffant hairstyles and girdles and other unpleasant stuff).  Styles of clothing have shifted; some from our heyday are even back in style--although not for us.  Age requires a shift in body image and fashion, we agreed. Its great to talk to someone who works with clothes and backs me up on this suspicion that things are changing on all fronts.  Its not just my mirror getting weird, not just me, but my peer group.  The comfort of the herd is a great thing.

So loss is a given, and the returns get harder to appreciate.  The big losses, especially, defy Pollyanna.  Ultimately, friends, spouses, everybody we know becomes a loss, unless we beat them to the punch and die first.  There really isn't any redeeming factors I can see in losing people you know or love.  The best I can make out of this lemon is that all those years of losing things actually has prepared me, a little bit, to face the fact that life is all about letting go.  Of everything. 

Since this is the case, its a good idea to keep hoping that we can avoid the biggest hits, and enjoy the things that don't go away.  Like smiles, beautiful days, a good book, cats, people who fill in the spaces, cortisone replacement, and hey I just found out about Retinol. 

Learning to deal with losses, therefore, could be one of the greatest things to teach kids--as long as its always backed up with hope.  Hope that things can get better, down to the very last loss.  That, my friends, requires all the muscle that any old heart has developed over a lifetime.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Its One of Those Ineffable Days 1001:18

Time is a Sign of Grace.   Once I heard someone say that.
So if Time is a sign of Grace, what does that mean? Age brings with it an increased awareness of Time.  The longer one lives, the less time one has, guaranteed, to live.  Like Tarot cards, ink blots, or mirrors, words are symbols, open to interpretation.  The phrase under question here might say--to me, today--that the longer you live, the more you can: Deal With; Understand; Let Go Of; Wonder About; Come to Terms With; Find Peace With; Find Passion For. Or, that you can Hate, Fear, Avoid.   Or maybe it means that Time is a gift.  If Time is a gift of Life, of Longevity, what do we do with our gift? If we live longer does it neccesarily mean "better"?  Is it better to have Some Time? A Lot of Time? Just Enough Time to figure out that we know something or nothing?  Is maybe the sum of all knowing simply: not knowing? What fills Time?

Wandering down the winding path of Home Philosophy seems to yield a lot more questions than answers.  Mostly, cultivating those questions just yields more crops of words.  Us people like to think that answers and explanations always exist, to all questions. It makes life so much simpler if there are answers. Our favored color of answers is "black-and-white, no gray area."  Thrown in with our belief in Almighty Answers is the belief that we exist for some special reason, other than propagating the species. 

"Believing in answers" is actually, perhaps, one thing which truly sets us apart from other animals on the planet (another thing that us people-types like to believe in is that we are unique animals, beyond our propensity to bite the [ecological] hand that feeds us [Earth]).  I'm not sure that my cats, for instance, have an answer as to why I lie abed in the morning when they are waiting for their ritual, morning teaspoonful of alternate food.  Conversely, they don't show the least interest in some answers I might feed them as to why I'm not moving in that direction.  They simply keep asking the question: "Meow?"  Astrophysicist Carl Sagan might even have agreed with this "answer" differentiation between Us and Them (C.S. made convincing arguments that people are not at all set apart from/ above other animals, in his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors).  Despite this, Answers have become a habit, if not an addiction, for humans.  So we persist. 

One  fit-all answer to "What does it mean to say that Time is a sign of Grace" which comes to mind is another group of words, from the King James’ Old Testament: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  Ah, abideth means dwelling over a period of Time.  This group of words ties some things together, then.  We have faith.  We hope.  We love.  And we have time--some more than others.  Maybe an advisable way to fill our alloted time in this life is to believe and hope and love.  That way, we would not simply all sit down by the side of the road on any given day when things were pilling up on us, and wait for Time to cease to exist.  Instead of waiting for Godot, so to speak, we can keep the chin up by believing, hoping, and being kind.  We can make a Leap of Faith (another Biblical phrase which is a good Answer) that Time is important, and that using it well gives us Grace, and generally makes us feel good.

I think that my cats--and all cats, and generally other animals besides people--hope for future events, and love companionship or food or each other or even people.  I don't have any idea to gauge what they believe in.  Apparently they believe, every morning, that I will rise up and tender little mercies to them.  Maybe they believe, like us people-animals, simply that they will keep on living til they die.  It's true that wanting to die can make it so; it's true that believing in living helps it to happen.  So all of us life forms on this little world could say, together, that hoping and believing and granting charity to each other is probably the best we can do with the time that we have. 

When you spin all the words and the symbols around, does it spew out black-and-white answers?  Does it explain Who and What and Why? 

Today one of my artist friends threw a word out, on the table of our conversation. The word was "ineffable."  Ineffable means: "Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words."  An antonym for "ineffable" is "definable."  I think Ineffable is a truly great word.  All the signs, symbols, words, answers in the world are attempts at black-and-white, right-and-wrong, knowing-and-not-knowing.  We find, and seek, and ask, and wonder, and fear, and have billions and billions of possible answers, to comfort and aid us. Many of them are very good answers, and bring great comfort and purpose.  I like to think, though, that they are, after all, only words.  Only symbols, signs, maybes, shots-in-the-dark, nursery rhymes and religions. 

I like to think that all the answers to all the questions are poor attempts to understand the Mind of God, as it were, which has been described as beyond all knowing.   For example, I don't really understand my cats. I  witness their actions and reactions.  I don't think they understand my words or why I feed them.  For them, for me, their are no clear answers.  They believe and hope that every day I will feed them and make them comfortable.  I hope and believe that they will sit on my lap and allow me to pet them.  We love our time-share arrangement, and are generally kind to each other. 

Beyond those three things, time seems mostly Ineffable.  Mostly, we can not know what Time is. Or anything really.  We just have to have faith and hope and, in the meantime, be kind.

Maybe thats all that Time is.