29 December 2010

Harmonics, Hippie Shit, and the End of Darkness

Blended Panorama - A little Christmas Day Skiing at Copper Mountain, CO - December 25, 2010
You may have observed the total lunar eclipse this winter solstice. What a spectacular and mysterious event! The moon slipped into the earth's umbra, where only the diffracted, fiery glow of thousands of simultaneous earth sunsets could reach; there, it reflected to the night side of the earth a subtle, eerie, alien orange light. As the shadow crept over the lunar surface, the darkest day of the year--the longest night, in the northern hemisphere--got darker.

What does it mean? It depends on how superstitious, or scientific, or spiritual you want to get. Actually, if you're superstitious, I'm sure you already know what the eclipse means.

Some Numbers. The last time that a total lunar eclipse coincided with the winter solstice was in 1638 (372 years ago). Prior to that, the same coincidence occurred before the year 0 (over 2000 years ago). However, the next time that it will occur is only 19 years from now in 2029, which is an effect of the Metonic cycle. It is rather awesome that we get to observe such events in this lifetime. For example, do you recall Mars' perihelic opposition back on August 27, 2003? Or Shoemaker-Levy colliding with Jupiter in July 1994? I suppose it's also possible that astronomical events don't make you as giddy as me.

Etymology. Regardless of your giddiness level, the eclipse is rife with spiritual symbolism, which I'll get into a bit farther down. Let me be clear that the word "spiritual" has long occupied a strange limbo place in my mind. That is, for many years, I have connotated it as something akin to "religious," in that you might have heard me say something such as, "I'm not a religious person, but I am spiritual," without knowing exactly what I meant by that. Even though the word is clearly derived from "spirit," it seemed to hold a significance beyond this that I could not fully grasp.

Until recently.

Wormwood (Artemesia Absinthium)
Image obtained
A Story. In early January 2010, I finished applying to grad school and shored up my plans to leave Boulder, CO (which finally occurred in September 2010). Upon submission of the final grad application, my good friend Casey and I brewed the second homebrew in our experimental "-unk" series. Among other common beer ingredients, this brew contained banana peel, licorice root, and a full ounce of dried wormwood (the active herb in Absinthe). We named it "Van Gogh's Junk" after the well-known, absinthe-using, ear-removing artist, but we should have done some research first: wormwood is the second most bitter herb on the planet, and is hence effective in generating appreciable flavor in quantities on the order of 1 Tablespoon per Gallon. We used probably 10 times too much, and it permeated the ale with the unpleasant flavor of dish soap. I drank ONLY enough of the stuff to discover its horrid flavor. Wormwood is also a psychoactive substance, which, with prolonged or intense use, leads to insomnia, stupor, and increased stomach acid (keep it away from pregnant women). I discovered these effects firsthand, and it sucked. (I imagine this is why Van Gogh cut off his ear.) It was only in retrospect, a few weeks later, when the fog and insomnia and anxiety had cleared, that I could process this. I can only guess that somehow, during the vigorous first week of fermentation, fumes from the roiling liquid affected me quite strongly. Any ideas?

Slightly more complex than the vivid
sparks I see. Image obtained 
Residuals. Since then, I have intermittently experienced visual aberrations (colored sparks, clouds, etc.) that look similar to what I have been told LSD flashbacks are like. Interestingly, these visuals are always affiliated with people, and some people more than others, though I am uncertain exactly how at this point. Is it an aura? Is it a thought energy? A divine spark? Another being? The conclusion that I have come to is that I somehow altered my spirit with an intense dose of wormwood because these visuals drastically increase in number and frequency in the presence of other people. I also seem to be able to control their frequency through my willingness to see them. I see the world ever-so-slightly differently now. In fact, I might say that I see it more deeply now. At first it was very unnerving, and I still have trouble letting these visuals happen, but I have come to at least accept that this is part of me. I'm still trying to figure out exactly where these colors that I see exist. I was recently intrigued by the fact that the visible spectrum is almost exactly an octave of color, approximately 810-405 THz, or 370-740 nm by c = λf (violet to red, respectively). This means, for example, that red is a harmonic of violet at half violet's frequency, and there are countless more harmonics generated by repeatedly halving the frequency. Much the same way that a certain note plucked on a guitar will elicit a sympathetic resonance in other strings if they are tuned correctly, it seems reasonable to me that there might be harmonic colors beyond the visible spectrum (likely in the infrared?) that excite these visuals in real color for me. If you had asked me about such things a year ago, I would have called it "hippie shit," but it sure is hard to dismiss these direct experiences as fake. At the very least, these have suggested a tangibility to the spiritual world. I'm curious if there are events and energies swirling around us that we have forgotten how to see. So now, when I say I am "spiritual," I mean that I feel intertwined with the earth, and other people, and their intentions and spirits, and other possible entities beyond my control, and I am trying to let that entanglement develop. 

So what spiritual significance might the eclipse have? As much as we live on top of the earth--in buildings, in cars, and on roads--rather than with the earth--in a forest, on the soil, perhaps barefoot--and as much as we attempt view ourselves as separate from the workings of nature (a socially popular missive?), humans are inexorably coupled to the cycles of the earth, the moon, the solar system, the galaxy, and the cosmos. Some cycles are imperceptible on human timescales, such as the rotation of the galaxy. Some cycles are easy to see, such as the orbit of the moon or the rotation of the earth. Perhaps the more perceptible a cycle is to us, the more it affects us. (For instance, as evidence, observe how our sleep-wake cycle coincides with the earth's rotation.) By this reasoning, the eclipse is a special point in a cycle to have observed; it is likely full of meaning to the human spirit. This solstice was the darkest day of 2010, but it was darker still from the eclipse, making it one of the darkest days in recorded history. In one sense, this means it can only get lighter from now on, which is an interesting metaphor. Knowledge previously shrouded may come to light in times to come; personal epiphanies may increase; positivity may reign. You may discover a calling in life, or make a big change, or find a new love. This is the end of darkness. Let me know what happens.

01 December 2010

A Few Modest Tricks

Blended Panorama - Looking East from Gaviota Peak towards Goleta (UCSB) and the Channel Islands - Sept 2010

Now that I have moved to California, I have assimilated a few modest lifestyle tricks that have really paid dividends, and I think they're worth sharing. These are not epiphanies, or serious changes, but simple steps you can take to make life more interesting, keep your mind sharp, and live healthier--all while cutting out absurd activities that detract from these obvious positive benefits.

Stay interested: Have a great conversation while driving.
While I'm driving, I like having a companion in the car with me for some good conversation, especially on longer road trips, because it really makes time fly. Recently, however, I realized that I was not getting as much out of those conversations as I could. The problem? No eye contact, and reduced hand gestures. Really, think about it. The best conversations happen when you make eye contact and, for instance, demonstrate what the hissing mountain lion was doing before it ran into the trees (you just cannot explain that without the hand gestures). It's hard to make eye contact while driving because you have to take your eyes off the road, and you cannot gesticulate as often with your hand on the wheel, but it is worth practicing both. Some people argue that taking your eyes off of the road to make eye contact, and that taking your hands off of the wheel to show, for example, how the runner was flailing her arms so awkwardly, increase the risk of accidents while driving, but that is absurd! The car basically drives itself. We're just pushing the gas and brake and turning the wheel sometimes. Plus, any additional risk is mitigated by the benefit of the really good conversation. I used to be too focused on driving to have a really good conversation, but now I can manage to drive to Ventura and back watching the road probably 50 percent of the time and using both hands to have a great conversation!

Keep your mind sharp: A few small mind games, and you'll be ready for anything!
Ever feel groggy when you wake up in the morning? Get tired in the middle of the afternoon? Want a way to wake up alert and stay alert all day? Well here's what I do: modest emotional jolts throughout the day. To wake up in the morning, I set a small number of distinct alarm devices (maybe three to five) around my room. Often, I'll even put one near the door of my roommate's room, which is just down the hall. Then, when they go off in the morning, I have to scurry out of bed, and turn them all off. The big rush comes from the uncertainty of waking my roommate up. I'm either anxious I'll wake him, or I'm guilty and he's pissed off, or any number of things might happen. Any way it goes down, I'm awake and raring to go! It's a great start to the day, and there is never that absurd waste of time waking up in the morning. Eventually, though, that jolt wears off, and I hit the mid-afternoon slump. That is, I would hit the slump if I hadn't learned how to prime myself with anticipation. Any given day, I might park my car in the boss' spot, or maybe take a handicap spot, or take the bus to lunch without paying, or any number of things. The uncertainty of maybe the boss getting mad or getting a ticket is so exciting! This is where the fun can happen, so use your imagination, and avoid that absurd mid-day slump! "So, what about the rest of the time?" you might ask. Basically, this emotional jolt motif can translate to any activity in your life, no matter who you are, or what your daily routine might be. The options are myriad! For example, when I do the dishes at home, I like to put the sharp knives pointing up in the drying rack because I know it will keep me on my toes. I really have to pay attention to avoid cutting myself, but if I accidentally do, there's nothing like a sliced cuticle to get the adrenaline going! I'm sure my roommates like it, too. The more little ways you can trick yourself like that, the more energized you will stay throughout the day.

Live Healthier: Boost your immunity in the kitchen.
I've only been out in California for a few months, so this is the last of the tricks I have discovered. Everyone knows that eating a balanced diet is essential to good health, and cooking your own meals is a great way to have tangible satisfaction in eating healthy. I fear, though, that we are doing an injustice to our health in the very kitchen we cook in. Most of the time, when we cook, we thoroughly clean the kitchen counter afterwards. This looks nice, but it reduces the immunity boosting effects of remnant food materials. I stopped thoroughly cleaning the kitchen counters three months ago, and I have in fact begun to spread the remnants around a little bit (envision wiping the counter down with the same rag you use to sop up the mess). This way, the little buggers that get us sick (bacteria, etc), have time to reproduce, so next time we come to the kitchen and prepare food, we cannot help but ingest a few. A small dose of this kind develops immunity, and I have noticed distinct improvements in my general health! I still don't get sick, but my digestive system seems to work better (I can tell by all the grumbling and churning inside), and I don't have to breath those nasty cleaning chemicals, which I'm sure are toxic. Everybody is afraid of working with raw meat or eggs on the counter top and not spraying it down with Lysol afterward, but I say spread the chicken goo and egg yolks around a little bit. Ads on television make us think that this is what gets you sick, but that's totally absurd! I feel healthier than ever, and I never get out the disinfectant spray, so I know the opposite is true. Next time you cook a big meal, think about how you can eat well and boost your immunity.

Share: What are your tricks?
Let me know what modest tricks you come up with. And check out the original Modest Proposal, by Johnathan Swift, in all of its satirical glory.

13 October 2010

In Vino Veritas

Blended Panorama in Paria Canyon, UT/AZ - A Fantastic "Small-Risk" Adventure with Friends - April 2007
Pliny the Elder coined the phrase, "In Vino Veritas," which means "In wine, truth." This is perhaps an unwitting double entendre; wine lowers our inhibitions, bringing out some aspects of our personalities that may usually be quelled (the "truth" comes out), but it importantly also provides an interesting analogy into the way we do and could live our lives. (It may, too, be what inspired Russian River Brewing Co to create their eponymous Imperial IPA).

Here's what I mean. You may have heard that one alcoholic drink per day is good for you (which may or may not be true, depending on who you ask). You've also heard that regular moderate exercise is great for you. These both represent the concept of hormesis, in which a small dose of a toxin actually evokes a positive overreaction in the body. Increasing the dose too much can be detrimental (or lethal, depending on the toxin). In our above examples, you could imagine an overdose resulting in alcohol poisoning or perhaps a stress fracture from running too much. However, increasing the dose slowly can allow you to build up a tolerance. This process, called mithridatism, is how people become alcoholics and marathon runners, and it is also how Westley defeats Vizzini in the Battle of Wits.

So what sort of insight can stem from this? How might we live our lives differently?

For one, go take a (small) risk. If you equate the risk to a "toxin," the analogy is apt. Just like one glass of wine per day is good for you (i.e. the "truth" of wine), it's good for you to see and experience something outside of your comfort zone. The more you do it, the bigger your comfort zone gets. This might mean that you try playing tennis for the first time ever, or you say hi to a complete stranger, or you actually dance in the club without the excuse that you "haven't had enough to drink." These things won't kill you; on the contrary, they'll stimulate a positive overreaction in your body. In fact, you can build up a tolerance to these activities, and before you know it, you'll be a star tennis player with all sorts of friends that want to go dancing on weekends.

That's a good segue into another insight: Not everything you can build up a tolerance to is advisable to build up a tolerance to. For example, I advise against becoming an alcoholic. That WILL kill you, or at least ruin your life. Use your intuition. Go take a risk that will help you grow rather than numb your senses. And then tell me: What sorts of insights have YOU had from the "In Vino Veritas" analogy?

Your tennis-dancer friends are waiting.

16 September 2010

Near and Far

Blended panorama of the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, NSW, Australia - August 2010
Not too long ago, I returned from a personal holiday in Australia. It was a fantastic trip, full of people who spoke differently and said funny things, mountain ranges of ancient, crumbling red rocks, and the lingering cold smell of mid-winter. What made it so fantastic was the break from almost everything I knew as normal--everything I could rely on. I went by myself. Money was a pocketful of coins and technicolor stack of bills; cars moved on the wrong side of the street; I often shared a bed-room with 7 other people; the stars were different after dark. Even the water spiraled down the drain the wrong way.

When I returned, I had a conversation with my Dad.

"I think that the farther from home you travel, the more of a relaxing, mind-shifting vacation it can be," I said. He replied, "I think that a person can get the same level of vacationing out of a trip that's not so far away. You don't have to go far to travel far." It went unresolved as to what was "true" because neither of us could fully elucidate our point, but we do agree there are various merits--monetary, temporal, etc.--to both.

A couple days ago, a friend of mine brought up an interesting point related to the debate. He spoke of classical conditioning, which is what might explain, for instance, why you suddenly have to pee really bad right when you get to the bathroom even though you held it so well for the 30 minute car ride home. It's psychological: the toilet evokes your urge to go because that's where you go. Your body gets ready to do the thing before you do.

Such classical conditioning also speaks to my point, which is the difference in traveling near and far away. Here's my question: What if you don't know what the next thing is? That is, what if you're in Australia and it's winter time and the stars are different and you truly have no idea what will happen next? Well, your body doesn't get ready for anything (and you probably don't have to pee really bad). Perhaps you take everything in like a child, hiking in the Blue Mountains, seeing a kangaroo bounding past you for the first time. That's actually no so far off the mark, and wow, it's refreshing.

My claim is this. The farther away you travel, the farther you remove yourself from a familiar context. Without a familiar context, you can't anticipate anything. Showering takes longer because you have to figure out how the faucet works. Eating takes longer because you have to FIND the grocery store. Commuting is confusing because people drive on the wrong side of the street, so you take buses and trains and taxis to god knows where. My good friend Casey also points out that free time pops up when you don't have a familiar context; there is no default plan; there is no ritual to fall into. You're not classically conditioned for any of it. To me, that's a vacation.

But it could just be me trying to prove something to myself in my capacity to push the limits. Maybe my Dad is content and doesn't need a big trip to get big results. Then again, maybe he's speaking from his experience reading Thoreau's Walden, a much-lauded book of personal discovery and actualization and intention. It's set at Walden Pond, which is a real place, but "Walden" is an idealized place too--such as is Eden--that you can find or visit anywhere if you know how to look. Thoreau didn't have to travel a large distance to travel far at Walden Pond. Mary Oliver, a poet, sheds some light on the place as well, especially so because she declined to visit:

Going to Walden
It isn’t very far as highways lie.

I might be back by night fall, having seen

The rough pines, and the stones, and the clear water.

Friends argue that I might be wiser for it.

They do not hear that far-off Yankee whisper:

How dull we grow from hurrying here and there!

Many have gone, and think me half a fool

To miss a day away in the cool country.

Maybe. But in a book I read and cherish,

Going to Walden is not so easy a thing

As a green visit. It is the slow and difficult

Trick of living, and finding it where you are.

(The River Styx, Ohio and Other Poems, 1972)

Maybe the trick is suspending your classical conditioning in familiar situations. Any ideas how to do that? Perhaps, too, it's actually nice to rely on some comfortable things while you're on vacation. At any rate, it's good to see something new, however far you have to go to see it. As I see it, this is the trick to knowing how to look: Happiness is not a situation, but rather what you make of your circumstances, however far you've traveled. Then you find Walden.