Oliver Sacks & Other Friends I have Never Met

Digital collage illo: RIP Oliver SacksRIP Oliver Sacks (1933-2015).

Many of you who have been visitors to my blog for some time know that Oliver Sacks has for many years been one of my heroes, a deeply admired person because of his almost superhuman intelligence, his incredible breadth and depth of interests in a miraculously polymath-painted life, and most of all his quietly humane character. He lived a life so full of remarkable adventures, of openness to thought and passion, and seemingly endless ability to express his unique insights and experiences in language that was both approachable and lyrical that it seems ridiculous to believe all of this was only part of the substance of one single person’s life.

He died yesterday after a life that he self-described most aptly as that of being a perpetual Explorer, and I think that he will always, even in death, in some ways remain unchanged from the otherworldly spirit that he was on the terrestrial plane. His interests, while so many of them were decidedly practical and rational in his approach to them, were at bottom more genuinely in the philosophical realm of How, Why, and What-if than strictly scientific, a matter all the more notable because of his stated distaste for the perceived veils and distractions of organized religion. He was, indeed, sometimes criticized by fellow scientists, particularly in neurology (his central area of study), for being more interested in writing about and even, supposedly, exploiting the experiences of his patients and subjects than in performing and documenting the hard science that might explain and even cure them, but that, to me, was precisely his greatest strength and gift: that by translating the coldly factual into story form and making a simplified narrative both more approachable by and engaging to a wide readership, he made all of these disparate character studies and discoveries—both his and others’—far more meaningful and important in the lives of a whole generation who would otherwise have no reason to concern ourselves with or even grow to love this strange inner world of neurology and what it means to our being human.

All of this is only a small part of what endeared Dr. Sacks to me, as it clearly did to the tens of thousands who wrote him letters, consulted him, and studied and lauded his manifold accomplishments during his colorful life. Most of all, because he more and more fearlessly allowed us into his own inner life, to see how he himself experienced this complex, lovely, infuriating, and mysterious existence of ours, we were allowed to see him as a peer and a flawed, eccentric, humorous, and daring person all at the same time. This kind of intimacy is rare, for most of us, even with our closest companions, so being given so freely, vividly, this relatively unvarnished view into his inner workings made me join those thousands in thinking him a unique brand of Friend. We will all bear this loss. Yet we will all continue to benefit from the wonderfully ethereal quality of our presumptive Friendship, as well; he will remain with us in his books, the documentation of interviews, film, and all sorts of other recorded parts of his life and work, and of course, in the intense spirit of exploration that he fostered in himself and admirers alike.

I say these things here not only because of the unparalleled character I think Oliver Sacks shared with so many of us in his life, nor merely because I always found him a rollicking, endearing, and thought-provoking Good Read. It’s because his life and his death, for me, underscore what I have found to be profoundly true and increasingly obvious in my own smaller sphere of living: that what is universal in us transcends simple explanations or first person contact and allows us to befriend and treasure others who may share in daily life very little strong commonalities but remain in this larger and more complicated universe unimaginably interconnected. I have friends through this very blog who, though I have not met you and may never have that privilege on this earth, feel as bound and happily related in our mortal way to me as those who keep my physical company and speak to me face-to-face each day. I understand these connexions, however slightly, better because of the work and words of Oliver Sacks. It seems to me that his peculiar genius, despite his own avowed struggle with emotional incoherence or remoteness at times, was to find through studying, learning, expressing, and teaching others about the supposedly quantifiable attributes of the brain’s workings, a sweet, lasting, truly human kind of love.Digital collage illo: Oliver's Rainbow

Colorful Language

Photo: A Constellation of Mysteries

Color is just one of the infinite constellation of mysteries that make up my world, my life. What looks like nothing but the fabric of my black corduroy pants has a surprising amount of what looks like non-black color in it when I look very closely. A bit of digital exaggeration and enhancement to bring out the colors I see either heightens the illusion or tells me, once again, that color is far more than meets the eye!

I’ve been taught that color, or at least our perceptions of it, might be manageable. As an artist, I try my best to take advantage of that possibility. But I know my limitations. Even rather experienced and advanced color theorists in this day and age come up against problems with explaining and understanding precisely what color is and how it acts, despite knowing the differences between additive and subtractive mixing, knowing how the retina and brain perceive and communicate color ideas to us, or knowing how the environment and context of what we see affects our perceptions of color.

What does it really mean if I say that Black is a construct that represents the absence of color and White, one representing all colors combined? Or if I tell you that an orange is, well, orange, but in deep shadow it might appear brown or black, or light yellow? Or that humans have white or black or red skin! What gives a single one of these concepts any credence at all? Color, it seems to me, is a matter of faith as much as of science—like so many things we think of as immutable Fact in our little universe. What both science and faith seek to explain, it seems to me, is beyond the scope of human understanding no matter how brilliantly we study and how majestic and divine our inspiration would appear. What is all around us is supremely complex and beautiful and, to my mind, needs no understandable explanation to be so glorious.

No matter what color it is.

Ménage à Moi

Digital illo from a photo: Woolly NillyZoo Zooming

I’m off to see the monkeys now,

The ibex, the Tibetan cow,

The tortoise, hippo, kangaroo—

But if you think it’s to the zoo

I’m heading out, you’re incorrect—

I’m off to feed my intellect

Not in the jungle nearby found,

But where the animals are bound

In paper quarters, for you see,

I’m headed for the library.

Oops.

What if science were all subject to a completely innocent, ignorant childlike approach? I can imagine there might still be people attempting flight by means of getting into a big slingshot of some sort and expecting to be transported into a plane, rocket, or shuttle by unknown magical means from there. Talk about missing the point!
Photo: Oops. Or not.

Then again, what if there were no childlike naïveté in the sciences? No one would dare to ask what seemed at first like ridiculous questions or to assume that the apparently remote outlandishness of an idea could prove to be possible, with some study and experimental investigation. No one would fly, other than perhaps falling off a cliff, where the landing is inevitably so much less desirable in form than otherwise. I suspect that taking chances and inquiring about what could be dangerous or at least foolish topics will always appear slightly immature and entirely risky to those who don’t dare to dream, but I’m mighty glad that there are others on this earth who brave the unknown with the heedless enthusiasm one might have expected from a kid.

The Darker Side of Kid Scientists

Photo + text: Too Bad for the Bug

I know it’s generally preferred that scientists take a detached and dispassionate approach to their subjects so as not to skew their studies or experimental data, but I rather think that even entomologists should show a little respect for their subjects. But kids will be kids. Also, I happen to know from my own youth that if you let on that you find something creepy or gross, it’s pretty much guaranteed that some other child will eventually figure out how to use it to torture you. Kids are charming that way.

A Faraway Look

Daydreaming is amazingly useful. No matter what teachers and bosses and impatient parents may have said over the years (never to me, of course, wink-wink), that pleasant fugue state of seemingly purposeless internal wandering is where a great deal of terrific, very purposeful invention and problem-solving happens. It takes us to inner regions where we are unencumbered by rules, editing, and logic, and can let the what-ifs of experiment and hope play together until, sometimes, they produce brilliant results that endless hours and years of study and labor might never have fostered. How can we expect to engender anything grand if we don’t aim for the seemingly impossible?Photo: Faraway

Consistent study and labor are, of course, quite necessary if we are to be able to even conceive of what exists and how we intend to alter it; to begin with no facts, no tools, no notions of probability or potential will inevitably leave us puzzling fruitlessly for ages before we ever approach a fantastic and outlandish idea, let alone a useful one. But once the seeds have been sown, we can’t assume that there would be no purpose in additional time and imagination spent on divining what to do when they begin to grow as well. The dreamers of the world have nurtured at least as much meaningful and helpful stuff as the mere scientists and scholars and brawny-brained geniuses have done, but with less hoopla, and it seems to me that we should be wary of working too hard to bring fantasists down to earth too soon.Photo: Fruition

Assume, when you see me in an apparently abstracted slide toward the comatose, that I am in fact inwardly journeying toward a dazzling insight or earthshaking invention or two, and leave me in peace. I shall emerge, in due time, bearing the harvest of this grand exploratory trip. Or at least I’ll have had a refreshing nap. I’ll happily leave it to you to determine the value of the difference, if any, between the two eventualities.

Hot Flash Fiction 13: Eternity Beckons

Photo: Science by CandlelightEternal life has always been the masters’ magnificent goal; no wonder that great magister and alchemist Osteodaimon was also determined to solve this elusive mystery himself, to plumb the Stygian depths of knowledge collected by the most piercing minds and intrepid souls ever to walk this dangerous earth. He began with years of reading, apprenticeship, exploration, privation, and experimentation. What Osteodaimon learned most quickly was that the process of becoming immortal was in fact incremental; it was a long series of tiny steps and grand leaps, of fallings-backward and soaring upward, all of which took him through both his long and arduous life of study and also a few strange periods of stasis, in which, all told, he began this mystical transformation of his into one truly able to transcend death. Many and terrifying were the missteps and passages, rites and elixirs, incantations, and the heart-shaking, wrenching feats of bravery and agility required of his profound intellect and the ever-disintegrating body that sought answers from that abyss.

One winter’s night, when he had traversed the grueling routes both between his birth and the ninety-two cycles of the seasons that already marked him as uniquely time-defying by his ancient era’s reckoning, and between the smoothly un-furrowed innocence of youth and his avidly acquired brilliance, he recognized in the ice crystals forming along his lashes the last increment required to complete his journey. Carrying the tinctures and potions that would preserve his last bits of mental and physical strength for the ritual, he set forth in the falling snow and moonlight to go farther into the frozen wilderness than he, or anyone, had ever plunged before. He began to notice as he went forward that the slower he moved, the faster the vastness of ice seemed to recede before him, until it was clear that his pace of progress was directly opposed by the increasingly swift passage of time. He knew that his own final breath was hardly a hairbreadth ahead of him, racing both toward him and away, and that only by letting the speed of it catch up with the glacial slowness he himself was approaching, at exactly the right juncture, and by taking the last dram of his precious medicine at exactly the same instant, could he affect the perfect circumstances for his final transformation.

Osteodaimon finally marked the spot. He lay down on the bottomless swath of blue-black ice, took the last draught of his alchemical magic into his gaunt grey mouth, and stopped. He became fused to the ice there instantly, his eyes made into a pair of wide, dull mirrors for the relentless moon and faded stars of perpetual polar night.

When he returned to himself and forced his eyes to focus again, his vision was oddly fragmented, and he sensed that he had drifted from his last stopping place far more than he had imagined he would have done. But the new place, also moonlit and cold, was pleasant enough, and he knew that soon his vision would clear and the slight buzzing in his ears would pass as he regained his strength. His sense of physical power, indeed, astonished him immediately as it returned; it was not only as though he were young again but as though he had new and exhilarating powers that would easily surpass those of his remembered early years, when he had labored so mightily in his pursuit of conquering death. This new Osteodaimon was a super-being to be reckoned with, and he took off at great speed to see what he could now accomplish in this next passage of his life.

It startled him how quickly he was able to go from place to place, how he seemed now to see things from so many new perspectives and rarely wearied of dashing about, looking, stopping to sup cold water or wine, or have a little food when he chose, but endlessly pursuing the delights of his renewed life. We cannot be sure, for history has failed to record all of the details perfectly, but it may be that it was only a matter of days, or at most weeks, before he realized that he could no longer read.

This proved a surprising disappointment that he would attempt to address soon enough. Not quite soon enough, perhaps, that he was ever able to learn the story of how, in A.D. 1867, a small group of botanists on the steppe discovered a perfectly preserved man encased in ice at the edge of a receding glacier. How the intrepid scientists chiseled their magnificent find out of his tomb in a manageable block and labored to drag it back to their fledgling university by sledge and wagon and train. How they built an ice-house museum room for the express purpose of preserving and examining this amazingly lifelike ancient man. How, one awful night in 1871, the city and that little-known museum in it were consumed by fire. How the ice-entombed mystery man had been spared cremation himself only because the conflagration had taken so long to melt his ice block that he remained weirdly, wonderfully intact, his eyes dully mirroring the moon once again.

Surely Osteodaimon could not have learned how to read again even in time to make sense of the tale that followed, of the chaos after the city’s destruction that prevented anyone from having further sightings of this miraculous time-traveler that had so clearly been the earthly form of the great magister and alchemist himself. Even if he had been able to read again, there would be no document to explain that his ultimate disappearance meant neither that he had finally ceased to exist nor that his old ideas of perpetual life being possible were entirely incorrect, for in the days and weeks immediately following the Great Fire, there was far more concern for removal of dangerous debris and rescue of injured and homeless known victims than for tidying up the remnants of an obscure museum. Had there been a witness to record it, there might have been something that Osteodaimon could hope to learn to read, something telling him that his thawed remains had rotted in the post-apocalyptic drear of an abandoned building, showing no more activity than the usual decay and natural recycling would show.

He might also, of course—had he been able to read it—thought that perhaps the early philosophers and proto-scientists were not entirely wrong but only slightly misdirected in their belief in spontaneous generation. For he would have found in the documentation of the ice-man’s progress that feeding on his mortal remains had been the usual generation or two of avid creatures that led to his emergence, eventually, as revivified carbon in the form of a blowfly. Once alive, always alive, but not, perhaps in precisely the way he had long imagined it.Digital illustration from photos: From Here to Eternity. Maybe.

Hot Flash Fiction 12: The Marvelous Machine

People traveled for days to see it. The warm gleam of copper and brass on its mysterious curved reflected their own faces, if a little blearily, and they were mesmerized. The ticking and clicking of that machine and its workings’ purr and whirr drew whispered speculation and quietly fearful puzzlement and some observers began to contemplate whether they oughtn’t to summon the constable ‘just in case’ before the process was completed on the morrow. Yet so much study and work and testing had been reported before this debut of the machine that no one was fully prepared to admit so brazenly to such cowering mistrust. So at last, on the appointed Friday, six of the town’s leading citizens—with a few nervous titters and a little confused shuffling and tripping over each other—untied the network of cautionary tapes that had held back the crowds, and everyone surged up in a breathless wave for a closer look.
digital collage

There it was: coming forward on the slow conveyor belt from its central tank was a very small but perfect object of glowing copper and brass curves, ticking and clicking and purring and whirring just like its larger forerunner. It was followed, as the conveyor moved along, by ninety-nine other minutely perfect replicas.

And that is how the world had its first hint of what lay ahead.

Meditation Medication

digital illustrationHealth is a wildly, weirdly, wonderfully complicated state. Both physical and mental health are astoundingly omnidirectional networks of intersecting matrices and random points; genetics, environmental influences, accidents, allergies and so much more come together and continue to change over the life of any one person. Furthermore, these meet in an intersection of the two networks (mental and physical) in every single person, that it’s nothing short of miraculous that any of us human conglomerations actually survive and have relatively good health.

It’s completely unsurprising, then, when something or other does break down or fail to be really perfect when it comes to health matters. Thank goodness there are more and more answers and helps for us when it comes to such moments of concern. But for every solution, there are shortcomings and side effects, and we still have to make choices and experiment, test and try and hope.

I’m one of those relatively rare creatures blessed with generally outstanding and reliable good health. I’ve never had a broken bone; I’ve had all of three stitches in my whole life, and I’ve never worn a cast or a brace unless you count the kinds I could buy in a neighborhood pharmacy for an achy hyper-extended knee or a fiddly fingertip whose little cut made a mockery of my hale-and-heartiness when I was whimpering over the pain every time I’d bump it. My various moles, cysts, and bumps have all thus far been benign and manageable. Even those more significant elements that might affect my function and longevity are so far pretty reasonable to deal with and don’t require enormous amounts of care just yet.

The essential tremor, noticeable since I was about ten or twelve, has never gotten so obtrusive that I have had to do anything for or about it. The mitral valve prolapse (heart murmur) is so mild that it went unnoticed until I had a regular physical exam from a person who, as pure chance had it, was conducting a study of that specific condition and so was attuned to its unlikely presence. Very minor hypothyroidism like mine is easily kept at bay with very little medicine (mostly pretty common ones at that) or monitoring. I am especially grateful that thus far there is no indication that the Parkinson’s Disease that poses as the only true black sheep of my family has not to date taken up residence in my body.

This is not to say that I have no inkling of any of the irksome and unpleasant effects of imperfect health. I’ve come to recognize the recurrent, and in some cases, chronic, annoyances and inconveniences that come with allergies. While mine have remained moderate and turn out to be treatable if not controllable, I figured out after getting some help that they had had a far greater control over my daily life and well-being before that time than I had realized. And as I’ve said here before, I have had my adventures with Spasmodic Dysphonia, clinical depression, and anxiety; these had larger influences on me and, therefore, those around me, by a magnitude of difference.

What arises every time I contemplate these things, all of which are in my own life more survivable and treatable than I know that they can be for others, is the notion that as a typically complicated human health exemplar, I still have to work continuously to discern what combination of the tangible and medical kinds of interventions and treatments with those more intangible approaches of meditation, activity, and trust—call it faith, hope, prayer, optimism, or attitude adjustment, it’s all fodder for feeling, and possibly, getting, better—will suffice to keep any of my anomalous conditions in check.

Thus far, the answer for me has been a shifting combination of the tangible and the intangible; I think that’s how it works for most people. My personal recipe for success is neither absolute nor permanent, any more than my personal state of being is fixed or unchangeable. Health, both physical and mental, changes rather constantly over a life span, and the longer one lives the more cycles and spikes of change are likely to occur during the stretch. What, then, can I do?

Keep trying. What combination of body-chemistry-altering substances serves my needs at the moment? They might well be outright commercially made and sold and officially, doctor- or nurse-administered drugs, but they can also easily be homeopathic or folk cures, foods or herbs or numerous other things that I’ve discovered through trial and error suit my physical and mental well-being. The same can be true of physical therapy: it might be specific exercises recommended to me by my doctor or other trusted medical and health experts, or as is often the case, it can be a set, series or group of activities that simply make me feel closer to my optimal conditioning. Nowadays, as always, I find myself using quite the mixture of these helpers to suit my specific needs and wishes for better health and happiness. For me, that means a full combination of what could be loosely classified as medication and meditation.

I can’t begin to tell you how that works or is explained scientifically. Some of it I’d bet good money can’t be clarified in scientific terms. But experientially, that I can tell you: I feel pretty good. I get the occasional sneezes or headaches, and there are times when it irritates me, yes, that my vocal cords are recalcitrant and unreliable. I’d definitely prefer if the shadow of Parkinson’s hied itself off my family’s shoulders, most especially Mom’s, and would never try to sneak up on me later despite any efforts on my part to ward it off if possible. But let’s be honest. Right now I feel pretty good, and that makes me happy. Whatever I’m doing or not doing, taking or not taking, it seems to be working.digital illustration

Foodie Tuesday: Sweets, Treats & Healthy Eats

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What’s good for my heart might be as much a spiritual question as a nutritional one, even at table. Mmm, BBQ!

I am one of those silly people who don’t think the title’s terms are mutually exclusive. Call me a cockeyed optimist (because, well, I am), but it also happens to follow a certain logic if I tell you that not only do scientists and nutritionists and doctors sometimes concede that what was once thought the epitome of healthful behavior and ingestion is now believed to be quite the opposite, or that things we once considered horrendously dangerous and likely to contribute to the destruction-through-dining of the entire human race might not be quite so terrible after all. Not to mention the recognition that each person’s body type, genetic makeup, chemistry, environment and so forth all make him-her-me unique in the ways we suffer or benefit from our diets.

So I will refrain from posting—on Tuesdays or otherwise—ruminations on what is Always or Never good for anybody. Besides which, as you well know on visiting with me even twice on a Tuesday, even my own two-person family household has vastly different ideas and tastes and preferences when it comes to what we simply like or don’t like to eat and drink. Thankfully, we can work out those differences in many ways, so the reality of our widely divergent food loves has relatively little impact on our love of being together.

This is, among other things, a reason that it’s nice to have something to amuse each member of the party at table, and let each choose his or her own combination of dishes, drinks and delectables. I am well aware that having no children in the family may be seen as a dodge of the most difficult issues in this regard, because as a supposedly responsible adult one might be expected to see that every child present is getting reasonable nutrition at all times, and hopefully, also building practices and habits that will lead to her continued healthy living. But of course one can point to numerous folk who have in various ways had the ability to subvert the rules and live and thrive. And of course, I live with an adult who has managed to do so despite having been raised to eat ‘right’ yet arriving at adulthood with a general dislike of much of what is, was and perhaps ever shall be considered ‘right eating’: he doesn’t like very many vegetables at all, and could probably survive on pizza, mac and cheese, hamburgers and fries, and those with little deviation from their simplest forms, especially preferred without annoying vegetable side dishes or icky sauces. While I enjoy nearly all of the foods he does like, I’ll also eat lots of other things gladly, including the veggies and sauces and many more things he would far rather not.

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Cucumber, all by itself, is refreshing; as a simple salad made with rice vinegar, honey, fresh dill and black pepper, it’s also delicious.

Does this in any way make him less intelligent or well-bred or good or admirable? It most certainly does not, any more than it confers sainthood upon me. It may be true that ‘the heart wants what it wants’, but baby, I’d say with ten times the conviction that the gut has powerful reign over our existence—stomach, tastebuds and brain in concert, that is. And I’ll bet you dollars to sugary, fat, wonderful donuts that this alone will not determine who among us lives well, survives long and dies contented. So I eat my vegetables, more often than not, alone even when eating at the same table as my beloved. He will order the same classic meat-and-potatoes food a bit more frequently than I will. We will both worry about our health and weight and shapes from time to time and each of us, occasionally, do some little thing or other to alter them, together or individually.

All I can say for certain is that I hope neither of us will ever lose interest in food and drink altogether or, especially, lose the ability to eat and sip much that we enjoy, because those tastes and those communal activities and shared experiences give us pleasure that is as beneficial to health and happiness as the nutrients themselves can ever begin to be. That makes Foodie Tuesday here a perfect day to celebrate a very special cook, hostess, family member and dear friend, whose birthday is upon us. Happy birthday, Mom Sparks! Your good cooking and your graciousness, both at table and all around, make you a Sweet Treat yourself—and helped to shape, unquestionably, the marvelous man with whom I am privileged to dine nearly every day, no matter what we choose to eat and drink.

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‘Green Banana’ Pudding: ripe bananas and avocado blended until smooth with fresh lime juice and zest, honey, butter (of *course* I’m not kidding), almond extract, and a pinch of salt. A few toasted coconut chips on top add just a hint of crunch. Banana-lime happiness in a spoon!