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.