POEM: Wisdom of the Leaf

The mind is architect of a slum town of grief.
Silent words, yet ceaseless calling.
I envy the simple way of a falling leaf.
No grasping, nor fear of falling.
 
If a thought could twist on the wind for its brief life —
not frantically seeking hold.
We would not live these dear lives strafed by strife.
We’d not find our dreams bought and sold,
or feel untimely turning old —
vigor sapped by a false form of cold.

And life would be all we had to live.

POEM: Dancing through the Graveyard

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What’s the age at which dancing on a grave switches from an adorable bubbling over of life

to a

deplorable act of petty vindictiveness?

I saw a boy — clearly in the former category — pull it off,

but I knew that if I joined in the best I could hope for was an evil eye. And the worst would be to be slapped, kicked, or spat upon.

For I long ago crossed the river of innocence beyond which lie presumptions of foul intent.

An ever-watchful Orphean world keeps me from crossing back over that Stygian river.

Oh, to live life on the other bank.

POEM: One Life at a Time

The man on a metaphorical soapbox said, “Aren’t you concerned about the afterlife?”

I replied, “My hands are full with the duringlife.”

Of course, nobody thinks about the beforelife,

because that requires acknowledging your parents made a bi-backed beast.

[Not you. You’re a single-backed beast in this story.]

 

POEM: The Sum of All Ignorance

Oh, take me on a learning spree.

Explain the nature of reality.

Am I living in a simulation?

Perhaps, dumb luck is the world’s foundation.

Does life have meaning, or must I make one?

Should I live for love, or live for fun?

Should I consecrate or desecrate?

Do I live by chance or live by fate?

The answers, they grow no nearer.

Am I the heard or the hearer?

&

If I received such a knowledge bearer,

would I awake in bliss or in terror?

POEM: Stone

someday someone will stumble on the stone

a stone outlasting skin and bone

a stone surface pocked and mossy

though once it shone polished glossy

brushing off letters worn shallow

on a stone face bleak and sallow

rendered so by nature and time

twins spoiling all not in its prime

they’ll read a name with bookend dates

and be shown they hold a common fate

should one become legend and myth

you’ll still not outlive your monolith

BOOK REVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This may be the scariest, saddest, and most necessary book that I’ve read in some time. In it, Dr. Gawande discusses how medicine has proven increasingly effective at extending life, but—at the same time–we are less able to care for the elderly. The traditional approach, in which the elderly move back in with their families (or live independently near them,) often proves untenable. And it’s not necessarily because people are too busy, lazy, or indifferent to put up with granny, but rather that granny is likely to end up with needs that require a professional caregiver—in some cases for virtually every aspect of her daily life. In short, we’ve done a great job of extending life, but often with a sharp dip in the quality of life at the end.

The nursing home was the solution that the health care community came up with when this problem first became apparent. While the nursing home is both necessary and effective for many, for those of sound mind and sound-ish body, the move can be highly demoralizing. People revert from being independent and autonomous adults into a child-like status in which they have little freedom or privacy. Again, if grandpa has dementia or needs to be tube-fed, there’s no way around this, but if he’s just at risk for a fall that might break his hip, then it can be humiliating.

When it comes down to the end, fear of death has led to an unwillingness to ask important questions or even consider what might be just around the corner. This has led patients to keep asking for that one treatment that just might extend their lives—and doctors have been more than willing to allow this. This may be fine in the early days of a terminal illness, but once one has gone through—say–a couple of courses of chemotherapy, the treatment one is likely to get is some trial phase experiment that is as likely to kill one cruelly as extend one’s life—and to the degree that it does extend one’s life one may suffer a set of complications far more miserably than one would in letting the disease kill one. One of the most intriguing study results cited showed that people who took up hospice palliative care (making one comfortable) were found on average to live a little longer than those who kept seeking whatever treatment they could find.

This all sounds like bad news, but the author devotes much of the book to exploring the options that have been put forth in the face of these problems. One of these is the assisted living facility as an alternative to a traditional nursing home. These facilities work for people who are of sound mind and who aren’t too bad off physically. They allow the individuals to live as they might in a condo or apartment, but there are on-sight caregivers and assistance with all the tasks around the house that might prove too challenging for an older person. The other major solution is hospice care. Not that palliative care is new, but it’s increasingly being show to be a preferable option for all concerned. Another important outcome resulted from a major insurance provider’s decision to allow individuals to pursue palliative care while they were still being treated. [Historically, one only had the option of hospice once one had given up on treatment.] At any rate, the intriguing finding was that the insurance company actually ended up paying less because more people signed up for palliative care and those individuals used expensive health care elements like emergency rooms and intensive care units (ICU) less.

While I can’t say that I enjoyed reading this book, I would recommend it for everyone. It’s very readable. The approach is case-based. Dr. Gawande talks not only about his own patients and the patients and caregivers that he interviewed (his practice is not geriatric in nature, so he spoke with several experts), but also about the end of his own father’s life. It’s a short book of about 300 pages arranged into eight chapters. There are no graphics, and endnotes are the only ancillary matter, but nothing else is necessary for this book.

Read it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Astrobiology by David C. Catling

Astrobiology: A Very Short IntroductionAstrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David C. Catling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book explains how life came about on Earth and what that might mean for life elsewhere in the universe. It may seem odd that life’s origins on Earth is relevant to this otherwise extraterrestrial sub-discipline, but that bit of biology offers insight into what is necessary for life—at least life as we know it. There is also the question of whether life originated entirely within Earth’s primordial soup, or whether there was an extraterrestrial ingredient necessary.” [Note: we aren’t talking about an advanced civilization placing creatures here so much as raw materials frozen in space dust or a meteorite. This is the idea of panspermia that once had a substantial following.]

If you’re interested in whether there might be life beyond our planet, this little introduction will give you the basic insights into where it might be found and what it might be like. Though the book deals with a highly technical subject, it’s written with the non-expert in mind.

The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter defines the subject of “astrobiology,” which is important as it’s not exactly a household term—and is arguably an ill-chosen term to boot. However, chapter one also defines life and outlines what are the necessities for the development of life. The second chapter explores what type of celestial body life might reside upon–or in. We tend to think narrowly of other planets like ours, but what about moons or meteorites, or even space dust? More broadly, this chapter gives the reader a primer on cosmology and astronomy as is relevant to the development of life. Chapter three evaluates the conditions which proved conducive to spawning life on Earth. This is followed by a chapter that looks at how the Earth provided an environment in which life could flourish, even allowing for the evolution of intelligent lifeforms. Chapter five explains how genes and the chemistry of life contribute to the perpetuation of life.

Chapters six and seven both answer the question of where we might expect to find extraterrestrial life. The former discusses promising locales for life within our solar system and the latter is about the space beyond. Needless to say, chapter six is a great deal more specific; it actually proposes nine celestial bodies in the solar system that could theoretically harbor life, and expounds upon which are most and least promising and why. Chapter seven is more about what kinds of places we might expect to find life, and where we might direct our investigations. While scientists are finding new planets all the time, it is a relatively new capability and these distant bodies are only discovered through indirect evidence. The last chapter is a brief one that discusses “controversies and prospects.” With respect to controversies the primary contender is the Rare Earth hypothesis that suggests that life may not be so common as we expect by virtue of the massive number of solar systems out there. As for prospects, that is just a couple of pages on the most likely contenders at the time the book was written.

The book has about a dozen illustrations, mostly explanatory diagrams and all in black-and-white. It also has a two-page further reading section. However, that’s it as far as ancillary matter is concerned.

I found this book to be interesting and a good way to get up to speed on the basic concepts necessary to understand the search for extraterrestrial life. I’d recommend it for others who’d like to do the same.

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POEM: To BE… Or Not

Copy of IMG_1580“What do you want to BE when you grow up?”

They ask you when you’re just a little pup.

So, what part of what I must BE,

is different from the me you see?

Dad thought, “the part that they’ll pay you for.”

Like an allowance for finishing a chore?

“Yes, young man, but you can safely assume, 

no one else will pay you to clean your room.”

 

Kids don’t think of being gainfully employed.

 

Which seems to make grownups quite annoyed.

At five, I wanted to be a cowboy.

“Son, there’s no jobs in that line of employ.”

That’s OK, then I’ll be an Indian.

“You’d have to be born that way, my friend.”

I wasn’t born a doctor, but you said that’s OK.

“That’s not the same, son, what can I say?”

I know what then, Dad, I’ll be the Batman!

“Come on, son, that’s not a feasible plan.”

You’re thinking Superman, Batman has no powers.

“Bruce Wayne by day, Batman at night, where’s the sleeping hours.”

You have a point there, you’ve got me stumped.

Thinking myself prematurely defunct.

BOOK REVIEW: What is Life? by Addy Pross

What Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes BiologyWhat Is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Dr. Pross’s book shares a title (but not a subtitle) with the seminal work by the renowned physicist Erwin Schrödinger from 1944. While Schrödinger addresses a wide range of topics on how life might be explained in terms of physics and chemistry, Pross’s focus is narrower. Pross asks—and proposes an answer for—the straightforward (but thorny) question of how abiogenesis could occur. Abiogenesis is life from the non-living. Darwin did an excellent job of explaining how we could get from single-celled organisms to the great complexity we see in our own bodies, but Darwin didn’t touch the question of how that very first ancestor became animated.

The subtitle of this work, “How Chemistry Becomes Biology,” gives one insight into how Pross proceeds. There’ve been many ideas about how life came to be on planet Earth over the years. For a time, the idea of panspermia—life arriving from an extraterrestrial source—was popular. Of course, the most popular belief has been that there was a force of life (i.e. an “élan vital”) breathed into non-living matter by a, presumably, supernatural force / entity. While the awe-inspiring nature of life made this idea appealing / believable, it took a hit from the Urey-Miller experiments. Said experiment exposed the four materials believed to have been the most common in our pre-biologic atmosphere (hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water vapor) to lightning, and the result included a range of organic materials—including amino acids–the building blocks of… well, us, among the other life forms of the planet. Of course, Urey-Miller didn’t make abiogenesis a foregone conclusion, but the production of ever more complex self-replicating molecules under laboratory conditions has made it easier to digest the notion that life developed without any intelligent or supernatural push.

While Pross’s ideas are at the stage of hypothesis, he develops a compelling explanation that revolves around the idea of dynamic kinetic stability. “Dynamic Kinetic Stability” is a mouthful, and so it’s necessary to break it down. The best place to start is with the “stability” part. This is because the biggest problem for an abiogenetical theory of life is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law tells us that entropy increases. There are many ways of restating this, such as that chemical reactions move to states that are of lower free energy. However, the most intuitive way is to say that a beer mugs break but do not spontaneously pop into existence. So if everything is getting simpler by deteriorating, breaking, and decomposing, how does one get / maintain a stable state of complexity? First and foremost, the answer involves adding a lot of energy and resources, but there’s more to it than that–as the author explains. “Dynamic” can also be explained in complex terms, but it’s most easily thought of as being like a river in that the river’s existence is stable, but it’s always a different river—ever changing water molecules arranged differently. (Critically, our bodies are the same way. Except for neurons, our cells are constantly being replaced.) The term “kinetic” speaks to how said replacement takes place; replication must be fast and decay slow.

The appeal of the ideas put forth by Pross is that they’re conceptually consistent with Darwinian Evolution. That is, an entirely new set of principles isn’t necessary to make sense of the origins of life. Pross argues that the self-replicating molecules that can most effectively put resources to use succeed in doing so, and—in the process–they drive others into extinction.

I found this book interesting and readable. The author uses good analogies to make his points (which often deal in complex matter) as clearly as possible. I can’t disagree with the other reviewers who’ve pointed out that the book is a bit repetitive and drags out a relatively simple statement of the argument. It’s not so egregious that I could say that it’s necessarily the result of a desire to pad the book out to a length necessary to sell in hard-copy form. (But it might have been.) The understanding of this topic is in its infancy, but that doesn’t mean this book isn’t a valuable contribution to popular understanding of abiogenesis.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in reflecting on from whence we came in a fashion that is open-minded to explanations that eschew the supernatural.

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2015 Top 10: Highlights From the Year That Was

These aren’t necessarily in any order.

 

1.) Trekking the Great Himalayan National Park [June]:

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2.) Teaching kids at KAMMS and Socare [September & October]: I finished my RCYT course in April and have been teaching kids when I have a chance:

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3.) Completing Level I Examination at the Muay Thai Institute [September]:

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4.) Riding camels at Pushkar and Jaipur [November]:

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5.) Boating on the Ganges in Varanasi [October]:

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6.) Wandering around a coffee plantation near Chikmaglur [April]:

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7.) Completing the Level III and IV reviews in Kalaripayattu [February & August]:

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8.) Touring the Glenloch tea factory in Sri Lanka [May]:

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9.) 108 Surya Namaskara Against Child Trafficking [March]:

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10.) Junk boat tour of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam [December]: This may be jinxing us to put it on the list,  before we’ve been (we leave tomorrow) but I’m optimistic that our three weeks in Vietnam will be awesome, and I’m told Ha Long

 

 

What to expect in 2016? Lilla and I will be moving back to the States around mid-year. (To where, exactly, remains a mystery.) In January and February I’ll be doing an RYT-300 course to round out my 500 hour yoga teacher certification. I plan to make at least one more trip to Thailand to MTI for Level II. I’d also like to complete the 10-day Vipassana meditation course before returning. Lilla and I are thinking about another Himalaya trek for the summer.

I’ll also be continuing to work on press handstand progression, as that’s been a focus for me of late and I still have a ways to go.

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