Misgivings of a Cosmos Hugger

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Carl Sagan, who had “billions and billions” of fans. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Good old Wikipedia tells me that “tree hugger may refer to a slang, sometimes derogatory, term for environmentalists.” If people consumed with ecosystems are dismissed as tree huggers, then you can write me off as a cosmos hugger. I’m in love with and worried about our whole existential collect: ginkgo bilobas, Carl Sagan, black dogs, harvest moons, avocados, even my neighbor who scraped his shovel as loudly as possible across the street in front of his house to clear 1/8 inch of snow—at 6:40 this morning, while I was enjoying in-breaths and out-breaths in the Ultimate Presence. Breathing in, I hear my neighbor shoveling. Breathing out, I smile at my $%#@ neighbor.

Because of my cosmos-huggerly love for neighbors of all shapes and sizes, all animals, vegetables, and minerals, all solar flares and black holes, I’ve had misgivings about the implications of several news stories in recent years. The following goodbyes and greetings have me stroking my beard and raising a cautionary finger.

Pluto Is No Longer a Planet.

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Computer-generated impression of the Plutonian surface. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The demotion of our distant neighbor Pluto is actually old news, but I still haven’t accepted it. Back in 2006, news.nationalgeographic.com reported that “the distant, ice-covered world is no longer a true planet, according to a new definition of the term voted on by scientists.” And what is a planet? “A full-fledged planet is an object that orbits the sun and is large enough to have become round due to the force of its own gravity. In addition, a planet has to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit.” Pluto, it turns out, is a scrawny hunk of ice with an “untidy” orbit.

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Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The scientists’ definition is based on buff rather than character. The report notes the trouble ahead—I’m not sure how/when it was handled. Now a dwarf plant, Pluto will have to be written out of textbooks, an expensive proposition. I’m ambivalent about other important, but cheap problems. 1.) We can no longer remember the planets in order by saying, “My Very Excellent Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas.” Now we’ll have to go with the same sentence with nachos or nectarines at the end. Either option is feeble. And 2.) What are we to do with Mickey Mouse’s English Pointer? Call him Neptune? Harrumph. So if the eighth planet is exiled, we’ll have a dog named Uranus? Imagine children at Disney Land pointing and shouting that. I vote we consider Pluto at least an honorary member of our solar system.

Okay, Who Made Off with My Cents Symbol?

I’m not such a grump as to expect to find the cents symbol, ¢, on my MacBook Air keyboard. There’s not much use for it anymore. Charlie Anderson offers on his website a detailed explanation for ¢’s disappearance—too detailed for this appreciation. In short, with the advent of computers in the 1960’s, engineers started fussing with keyboards, and pennies weren’t the only layoffs: “Three handy fractions were [also] cut: ¼  ½  ¾. This makes sense, especially when you consider that the ASCII [the American Standard Code for Information Interchange] committee was composed of engineers. I’m sure they thought, in their engineer’s way, ‘Why have ¼ but not 1/3?  And if we have 1/3, then why not 1/5?  Or 3/32?’ Similarly, the committee apparently found $0.19 an acceptable, if somewhat obtuse, way of expressing the price of a Bic pen. At any rate, the popular and useful cent sign didn’t make it.”

I have two kvetches about the ¢ issue. First, including “¢” in this text required over ten minutes of noodling around on the Internet for instructions. Yes, there is a generic cent symbol, but it’s clunky; it fits in like a welder’s mask with a prom gown.

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Rolling into the sunset. (Credit: Wikipedia)

My second misgiving hasn’t come to pass, but it’s inevitable. Now that ¢ is becoming obscure, its main tenant faces eviction. RetireThePenny.org is leading the charge. MIT Professor and site founder Jeff Gore says, “The penny has outlived its usefulness. Let’s retire it.” His suggestion deserves consideration. If, as Gore argues, a penny actually costs 2.4¢ to produce, and if, all angles considered, “the penny drains almost $900 million from the national economy every year,” then, well, points taken. Here are my cautionary fingers: 1.) Any time financial decisions get made in the land of the free, the wealthy seem to benefit. Just saying. 2.) This may be quack economic theory, but if the penny disappears, I bet nearly all costs will be rounded up to the nearest nickel, dime, quarter, or dollar. Price tags won’t get rounded down. Watch and see. And 3.) Penny wise and pound foolish would slide into oblivion along with a penny saved is a penny earned and other useful expressions. So let’s keep the penny, even if children born today won’t learn what ¢ means in grammar school.

Goodbye to John Hancock?

“Is Cursive Writing Dead?” So barks cbsnews.com, and with good reason. “The recently established Common Core State Standards, the standardized educational benchmarks for U.S. public schools, omit cursive as a requirement. Some states, including Indiana and Hawaii, had dropped cursive from their curricula in favor of keyboard proficiency as early as 2011.”

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“I don’t read cursive.” (Credit: Wikipedia)

I get this decision and can go with it, but my cosmic Spidey sense tingles. Yes, handwriting as a whole is diminishing, while cents-less keyboards take over. And I admit, writing with a pen or pencil for any length of time now hurts. Still, consider a devil’s advocate. At the trial of the neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman, witness Rachel Jeantel was asked to read a letter. With “her head bowed, [she] murmured with embarrassment, “I don’t read cursive.” So when we no longer teach cursive in schools, we’re leaving behind not only writing in that script, but also reading it. Someday, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address will be as accessible as cuneiform—sad. Also, learning cursive may nurture patience and attention to detail in young, attention-strapped minds.

Starbucks friend John disagrees with me on cursive, and he’s usually right. We’ll all just read translations. I won’t go down swinging on teaching curls and loops.

Name Public Places That Are Quiet.

The first place that comes to mind is the library, right? Not anymore, at least at my beloved local library. Ed Palattella of the Erie Times-News is only the messenger, so he’s not in my crosshairs. As he reports, because “it often does seem quite noisy and loud in Blasco Library,” Mary Rennie, the Erie County Public Library’s director, is “looking to set a little bit of ambience.” We’re talking “mostly ‘soft classical’ and jazz” over “the library’s overhead speaker system.”

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Shh! Burlingame Library, Burlingame, San Mateo, California (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Rennie is probably a bright, thoughtful person, but noooooooo! True, libraries tend to be soaring spaces in which sound echoes, but for once in my life, I’m in favor of stern figures with furrowed brows and zero tolerance. Palattella ends his short piece with this surrender: “Music at Blasco. It is a tune of the times.” I’m going to the mat on this one—not that it matters. In monasteries and libraries, silence is foundational. Posses of inflexible librarians should be sent as missionaries to convert the rude and blathering with tough love. Shhh!

Glassholes, Glassholes Everywhere?

Good Lord, if the Google Glass site I’m checking out right now is legit, residents of the First World are either doomed or blessed. You probably already know the idea: put on a pair of these techno-glasses and “Say ‘take a picture’ to take a picture.” Or “Record what you see. Hands free.” Or “Speak to send a message.” Or “Ask whatever’s on your mind.” Want to know how to say “half a pound” in Chinese? You’re covered.

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Please look at me when I’m talking to you. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I’m all for immediate access to information, but my cautionary finger points down another path. Google warns us not to be glassholes: in other words, with wondrous technology propped on our noses, remember to “respect others” and “be polite.” Yeah, right. With the cosmos’ current text-messaging drunkenness, can we really expect ourselves to pay attention to our fellow human beings when the next message or the latest swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated pops up in our face?

Could any technological advance be harder to manage? Well, yes. Consider the smart contact lens currently in development. “Imagine texting while driving,” writes Brian Snyder of Reuters, “or placing a call while showering, without holding your phone in your hands. It’s not sci-fi any more – a new technology allows information like text messages and driving directions to be projected onto a contact lens.”

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Bionic contact lens. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine what’s next. (Warning: I’m pushing the envelope!) You and I are making love, and I’m looking into your eyes. Only I’m looking into someone else’s eyes, a projection. And I look down and see another body. It’s flawless. Each mole and stretch mark is gone. Wow!

Enough. You get the idea and might call me a worrywart. Maybe so. But this cosmos hugger has misgivings. In a universe where the humble ¢ and icy Pluto are unworthy, where music passes for silence, are scarlet scars—they’re lovely, actually—on mothers’ bellies sacred? Won’t it be irresistible to eliminate saddle bags by seeing them with artificial eyes?

What good is the cosmos when we can see constellations without looking up at the sky?

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A Poem: Exodus

Exodus

March: these three

song sparrows

head in a line–

wing to wing

and keeping their counsel–

toward the leafless hills,

which themselves follow

one another

into the distance.

Trailing this delicate

gray exodus,

I hear the wind

for an instant

unburdened by

trucks or voices.

Only the mist

from my own lungs

offers the necessary

whisper in the silence.

Sparrows far off now,

I watch for others,

praying they’ll sing

me a route I can

thoughtlessly recall.

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When you take off, please sing to me. (Credit: Patryk Osmola / National Geographic My Shot / National Geographic Society / Corbis)

Note: This poem originally appeared in slightly different form in Southern Poetry Review (Fall 1991).

Micro-Post: The World Is Pulling My Leg

At the Millcreek Mall, Micah and I pass the Food Court and a pet store on the way to the E-cig kiosk. Smells: from Subway to General Tso’s chicken to pizza to a chemical cleaner that’s no match for pet poo.

A couple of kids play with a pup–maybe a Weimaraner, not sure–through the glass. The transaction seems friendly. The kids aren’t taunting; the dog’s having fun, spinning, reaching its paws toward them.

As I wait for Micah to pick up his cappuccino-flavored liquid tobacco, I begin to feel as though I’m from another world. Earth is pulling my leg.

In front of me is an establishment devoted mostly to eyebrows and eyelashes.

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“Oh,” I think, “you can get some kind of fabric woven into your eyebrows if you want them darker or you can make a weak mustache sturdy with facial threading.” But an eye-hair business? In this world, gracious, what you can buy!

After Micah pays, we head back the way we came. “Can you believe it,” I say, “a place where all they do is weave fake hair into your eyebrows and grow your lashes?”

“Uh, Dad,” Micah says, “I think with threading they roll thread over your hair to pull it out.”

Ah. Duly noted.

Back by the pet store, the kids are gone. The dog is lying in its cage–looking for more kids?

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In this world, animals that we consider friends are for sale. Dozens here alone, like sofas or flat screen televisions.

We sell what can love, fear, even save. And we micro-manage our eyebrows.

Dear World, please stop fooling around. Some of these jokes make me tired and sad.

A Letter to My Elderly Dog

Hi, Watson,

Of course you can’t read, but I’m writing this letter for myself. So please sit still and pretend to listen.

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Time to get up. Ugh! I’ll cover your eyes, pal. We’ll rest for another minute.

When you stood at my side of the bed this morning and sighed, I knew what you were saying: “It hurts for me to hop up on the bed.” That’s why I hold open the blankets and wait. When you’re ready to try, it means curling up beside me is worth the extra ache in those bum legs of yours. And I know, even if you don’t, that you won’t be able to jump much longer. I thought about getting a futon but figured the longer you have to work, the longer you’ll be around.

I sure do love you, old buddy. I love that every time I climb the steps and lie down for a nap, you hobble up with me. Your nails clicking as you scrape them across each step reminds me that eventually you won’t be able to make it to the second floor. Your mother doesn’t know this yet, but when you’re grounded, I’ll lobby for moving our room to the first floor and getting a bed that’s Watson friendly. You’ve had a place in our sleep for around ten years; I won’t abandon you to the cold floor as you near the end.

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You were even cuter than this pup when you landed on our stoop. We thought maybe you were pure black lab until the scruff sprouted on your chin. (Credit: Michael Kloth / Corbis)

Actually, you’ve had a place in our sleep from your first night in the Coleman house. Downstairs in the puppy crate, you yipped and howled, so I did something ridiculous. Knowing you weren’t house broken, I still picked you up, brought you upstairs, and settled you in bed between your mother and me. Guess what? It was as if the winter world you were rescued from had disappeared, and you were at peace. I kept expecting to wake up soaked in pee, but all night you slept between us, a black fur ball of relief. Dry. Safe. Home. Love.

You’ve been a gift to me, Watson. Sure, you have some annoying habits. If a squirrel squeaks on the boulevard, your alarm bark is like a funhouse scare–way out of proportion to the threat! For reasons I’ve never figured out, you take five seconds to decide if you want a treat from the table. I hold out a chunk of steak gristle, and you sniff and stare with suspicion. This is in violation of the Code of Dog Behavior, but you are gentle, which is good. You are the only dog I’ve ever seen who wanders when he craps. Cleaning up the backyard means sleuthing down a couple dozen micro-turds rather than spotting five or six robust piles from yards away. (Since your mom covers scooping detail, catching sight of you doing a pooping pirouette is more funny than upsetting.)

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Always a place for you on the bed, old friend. I promise.

Finally, and increasingly, when we’re napping you point your bum toward my face and crack nasties. You know, the barber no longer needs to trim my eyebrows. They’re all gone. Damn, Watty. But you’re around eighty, so I can make allowances. Besides, farts in the animal kingdom aren’t frowned upon. Neither is indiscriminate humping, though you are rarely so inclined. Thanks, pal.

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Breakfast soon, Watty. Thanks for waiting.

You probably have a couple years left, but who knows? I suspect you understand in your wordless spirit how grateful I am for you: how you lick my hand and face in the morning; how you wait for me to finish praying before going down for breakfast; how you used to love running with me so much you’d press on even when your nails bled from dragging across the pavement; how you lay down beside me when I’m writing at the dining room table–just to be close, I guess.

Silly people argue about whether dogs have souls. Walt Whitman once wrote about your kind:

I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;

I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;

Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;

Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;

Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.

As far as I know, Watson, you don’t commit my sins: take too much to heart, nurse grudges, insult others, and fall short of love in a thousand other ways. You, on the other hand, seem motivated entirely by love–when you’re not scheming to get extra Milk Bones. But I’m in no position to call you a glutton.

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I love you, Watson.

Between the two of us, my old napping partner, I bet you have the bigger soul. None of us knows what eternity looks like, and as I said, you probably have some good time left. But hear this in your dog heart: I pray that we both have a place at the Final Table, that we can look into the face of Perfect Love and eat our share, and when the meal is over, we can climb stairs to the bedroom on strong legs. I pray there’s space in Forever for me to rest my face against your gentle head, put a hand on your paw, and nap away an endless afternoon.

Love,

Papa

Poem: “The Myth of Embracing”

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“Like pines and doves unable to hug completely.” (Credit: Laurent Hamel / PhotoAlto / Corbis)

The Myth of Embracing*

Even in this furious sunlight,

the pine’s long arms form the promises

of circles, incomplete and longing for the sky,

where a mourning dove leaves curve trails

as its wings suggest huggings of the world

that just keep coming up with air—travel

is incidental. Our bodies curve, too.

The longest laugh, like pain, eventually

bends chest to knees, everything surrounding the heart.

When my daughter was born, her shocked eyes,

smeared face, jerking arms wanted something,

one perfect thing to calm the frigid light.

She screamed, like pines and doves unable to hug

completely. Embracing is a myth:

our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.

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“Our arms grow strong for all we cannot hold.” (Credit: Stewart Cohen / Blend Images / Corbis)

*Between 1986 and 1995 I published mostly poems. This one appeared in slightly different form in The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (Winter, 1991).

A House with Shaman Doorknobs

For over thirteen years the Coleman family has lived in a white house in Erie, Pennsylvania. If ever there were a house with soul, it’s 322 Shenley Drive. In its rooms wife Kathy, daughter Elena (twenty-five, now a married mother ten minute’s away), son Micah (twenty-two, working full-time and living at home), and I have known joy that wouldn’t let us stop laughing and sadness that had me, at least, looking at the bedroom ceiling at bedtime and praying: “I’d never take the life you gave me, God, but if you’re merciful, I’d be okay with not waking up in the morning.”

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A house with soul

This is a vulnerable admission, but as a pastor I’ve talked to so many people who have thought the same thing that I’m prepared to cut the crap. Some stretches in life are wretched enough to make you hope for a personal appointment with the One who promises to wipe away all tears. You can quote me on that.

But lately days are many stories above despair. (Did you just hear a rapping sound? That’s me knocking on every wooden surface within reach, including my own head.) As the blessing of being a rookie grandfather keeps pulling my lips into a smile, I’m finding it possible to glance backward without feeling a leaden weight in my chest or anticipating an ambush.

This morning–I’ve no clue why–I thought about doorknobs and what a rickety, inadequate collection we have in the Coleman house. I’m betting that among you indulgent folks reading this, nobody has such a crummy home full of doorknobs. What an impotent group! But as I went through the house studying doorknobs, I found myself visiting the last dozen Coleman years–tough years, but not without gladness. It was like looking at the jewelry of a loved one long gone. There was a fullness in the moment. That’s what the doorknobs were for me.

Front Door

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I don’t remember when the actual knob fell off, but for reasons I’ll never understand, we’ve never actually corrected the deficiency. Sure, we could get a whole new knob assembly, but that would make too much sense. Fortunately, this stump does allow you to exit, but there’s a technique involved. Years ago, it occurred to me that getting out required the exact movement used in giving somebody a counterclockwise purple nurple. Once during a particularly sophomoric evening, a guest looked at the stump and wondered what to do. I said, “Look, you want to get out, you have to pinch the nipple.” I said this without guessing that in our inappropriate home, my instruction would become a mantra. 

I’ve stopped hoping for a fix. In the Coleman story, the front door reminds me that some problems never go away, some simple inconveniences become squatters. I can live with this.

Bathroom Door 

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Ah, yes, one of those good, old-fashioned glass doorknobs. Let me tell you, they’re hotdog water. I’ve lost count of how many replacements I’ve installed, only to have them go to pieces in a month. I don’t even know where the model shown here came from. It just appeared up one day, and so far it has held together. Long after the house is gone, this doorknob may still be intact. It’s so tight a few days ago I heard Kathy shout after a shower, “Help! I’m trapped!” She’d put on lotion and couldn’t get any traction.

At various times we’ve stuck a pair of scissors in the empty hole, a slick solution, but understandably pathetic to visitors. I looked at this knob this morning and thought, “Yeah, well, you do what you can and laugh along the way.”

Upstairs Closet Door 

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I love this one. It works perfectly–no shimmying. And it’s the doorknob equivalent to power steering. Mmm. It’s also attached to one of the least used doors in the house. I suppose that’s Murphy’s Law of Doorknobs.

One of our cats, Baby Crash, is fond of sneaking in this closet when the door’s left ajar and then gets marooned inside. The teaching: a tool can be fantastic, but if I don’t make use of it, what’s the point?

Dining Room Double Door 

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Natural wood. Man oh man, am I a natural wood guy. Varnish, stain, polyurethane, oil: do whatever you want, just don’t slap white paint on every wooden surface in the house like my dad did. The only drawback to this door is that it’s nearly impossible to keep it closed. You hear it click, think it’s good, but next time you check the door has yawned open by its own will. This door and its knob remind me of having an easy-on-the-eye chef who overcooks your salmon. We have a couple other doorknobs that don’t do their jobs either, without the merit of being pleasing to look at.

Too many times over the years I’ve been cowardly and said, “Just let it be. Maybe the problem will get up and leave on its own.” At least in the case of the dining room double doors, I’m right. The door won’t close because the floor has heaved slightly, and I’m not about to fuss with it. The solution: the door and knob are attractive, even if they don’t work. Guess I can love them the way they are.

My Study Door 

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I come from a family of door slammers. When I was ten years old, my mother got really pissed, walked over to the basement, opened the door, and slammed it shut. Then she walked a few steps away, turned around, stomped back, opened the door again, and slammed it shut again. When Micah’s bedroom was in my present study, he did something to piss me off, but I didn’t engage in slamming. I just rammed the door open with my forearm. Who knows what set me off? All I can say is my study door won’t close until I do surgery with wood putty.

When I take responsibility for the damage, I’m quietly grateful. Who am I to scold somebody for poor choices or a destructive temper? I’ve got no business looking down on anybody.

Micah’s Bedroom Door 

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When son Micah was hooked on heroin, I refused to condemn him. I stood at his bedroom door as he slept this morning and remembered that in the shitland of active addiction, he was still quick witted, hilarious, and decent. I still crack up when I walk by Wilfred Brimley, “official sponsor of diabetis.” In my worst moments I despaired of Micah’s healing, but I always knew that if he came around, an exceptional young man would rise from the ashes. His doorknob is altogether missing these days, but who cares?

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Micah closes his bedroom door with a rope tied to a twenty-pound dumbbell. He’s content with this arrangement, and in our present doorknob context, so am I.

Kathy and John’s Bedroom and Closet Door 

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Bedroom and closet doorknobs put to good use

Elena and son-in-law Matt have now given Kathy and me a grandson, Cole. Micah, still under our roof, has his own life. We rarely close our bedroom door, so we hang clothes on our doorknobs.

In the end, I don’t give a rat’s rump about doorknobs. I care that loved ones can open needful doors and aching stories can be told.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln: Appreciations on Their Birthday

February 12, 2014: If Darwin and Lincoln were among the quick, they’d celebrate their 205th birthday today. I have a special love for both men and share these appreciations. This post is long, so you might need to consume it in two sittings. Hope it’s worth your time.

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin, My Brother in Complaints and Conflict!

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Charles Darwin’s grave: a little less grand than I would have thought (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

David Quammen’s excellent biography, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, notes that when the father of natural selection died, “the world . . . swooped in and claimed his body for history and posterity and the glory of British culture.” And the world “decreed that Charles Darwin be buried in Westminster Abbey,” which was ironic, since he was an atheist.

Biblical literalists would like to exhume Darwin and hose down his bones with holy water, but I consider him a planetary brother. Quammen describes the parallel development of Darwin’s transmutation of species and the onset of his health issues:

Darwin’s work on the transmutation notebooks coincided with his early complaints about what became chronic bad health. The symptoms were mysterious—jumpy heart, nausea, vomiting, headaches, nervous excitement, inordinate flatulence—but real enough to make him miserable and to slow his work. Was he a hypochondriac? A neurasthenic? Had he been bitten and infected by some nasty disease-bearing bug during a Beagle [the ship Darwin sailed on from 1831-36] stopover in Argentina? Many guesses have been made but nobody knows, to this day, what ailed him.

Inordinate flatulence–bummer. Fabienne Smith immediately and dryly states her theory about Darwin’s deal in her article “Charles Darwin’s Health Problems: the Allergy Hypothesis”: “The purpose of this paper is to buttress the evidence given in ‘Charles Darwin’s Ill Health’ [a previous article by the same author] for the theory that Darwin suffered from multiple allergy arising from a dysfunctioning immune system.” Sounds plausible, but I’m not about the read the whole thing. History.com presents its own list of guesses along with a few attempted remedies:

During Darwin’s lifetime, England’s most prominent physicians failed to decode the ailing naturalist’s jumble of symptoms. Their diagnoses ran the gamut from gout to appendicitis to hepatitis to mental exhaustion to schizophrenia, while the remedies they prescribed—lemons, Indian ale, hydrotherapy, arsenic, strychnine and codeine, among countless others—provided little relief.

An admirably researched Wikipedia article, “Charles Darwin’s Health,” lists “many hypotheses” for the man’s agony, including Crohn’s disease, panic disorder, Chagas’ disease, Meniere’s disease, lactose intolerance, lupus erythematosus, arsenic poisoning, hypochondria, migraine, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and chronic fatigue syndrome. That Darwin might have been cursed with even a couple of these conditions is frightening to imagine.

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Editorial cartoon of Darwin, 1871 (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The winner of my Scary Darwin Scholarship Award goes to Jerry Bergman, Ph.D., for his article “Was Charles Darwin Psychotic? A Study of His Mental Health,” which appears on the Institute for Creation Research website (icr.org). Bergman’s thesis is that mental health issues not only ruined the scientist’s body, but also led him to develop wacky theories. The article is part legitimate catalog of Darwin’s complaints and part smear job ala Lee Atwater and Karl Rowe. “Some speculate,” the author writes, “that part of Darwin’s mental problems were due to his nagging, gnawing fear that he had devoted his ‘life to a fantasy’—and a ‘dangerous one’ at that (Desmond and Moore, 1991, p. 477). This fear was that his theory was false and there was, in fact, a divine Creator.” (No, I’m not going to read the cited work, Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, but I did check the Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review excerpts on Amazon.com, and both sing that biography’s praises. I might be wrong, but I bet Desmond and Moore wouldn’t appreciate the use Bergman makes of their words.)

Bergman also hits below the belt when he implies that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he passionately loved shooting birds as a kid, which points to a “sadistic streak” that “may have, in part, motivated his ruthless ‘survival of the fittest’ tooth and claw theory of natural selection”; because he referred to committing suicide when writing to fellow scientist Robert Hooker about his upset over the writing quality of one of his books; because author Clifford Picover wrote that Darwin treated his wife and adult daughters like children; because “Darwin exhibited the obsessional’s trait of having everything ‘just so’; he kept meticulous records of his health and symptoms like many obsessional hypochondriacs. Everything had to be in its place; he even had a special drawer for the sponge which he used in bathing.”

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Darwin’s wife wrote him a letter in 1839 expressing her fear that they wouldn’t spend eternity together. After his death, the following addition was found at the bottom of her letter–a loving atheist’s attempt at comfort? “When I am dead, know that many times, I have kissed & cryed over this. C. D.” (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The article’s final sentence nails down what the author has been getting at all along: “To understand Darwin as a person and his motivations, one must consider his mental condition and how it affected his work and conclusions.” Bergman’s claim that Darwin’s scientific conclusions are flawed because he had mental and physical issues is like saying that a singer has an unappealing voice because he sleeps around: non sequitur. What singers do with their junk has nothing to do with their vocal cords and breath control; and the fact that a scientist needs therapy and meds doesn’t mean he’ll do biased research. If anything, in Darwin’s case I’m betting Bergman has the situation backwards. Darwin’s troubled constitution and psyche didn’t skew his scholarly work; rather, his health went into the chamber pot in part because his thinking was so contrary to the assumptions of his day, not to mention deeply troubling to his wife, a devout Christian; Quammen’s speculations, in fact, head in this direction without coming across like a conspiracy theory.    

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Charles Darwin at 45 years old. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, as Quammen writes, “nobody knows . . . what ailed him.” I’m looking at a photograph of Darwin at around age forty-five, seven years my junior, and feeling a connection. If only he could have picked up Atenolol, Prilosec, Zoloft, Xanax, Beano, and other modern medications at the apothecary, his suffering might have been manageable.

And if only Darwin could have enjoyed a daily siesta rather than taking to his bed for months at a time. Illness leeched years of work off of what was already an amazingly productive life. What’s worse, more profound discomfort still resided in a place microscopes can’t get at. Employing quotations from Darwin’s letters, Quammen playfully describes the scientist’s fragility—and mine:

[Darwin’s] doctors had advised him to quit work and get a country vacation, he added, and he was taking their advice. ‘I feel I must have a little rest, else I shall break down.’  After a few weeks home in Shrewsbury, with his father and sisters [in the fall of 1837], he reported again . . . that ‘anything which flurries me completely knocks me up afterwards and brings on a bad palpitation of the heart.’ Social gatherings flurried him. Intense conversations flurried him. Conflict, or the very idea of it, was highly flurrisome.

The last part makes Darwin my kin: the slightest prospect of conflict is nearly incapacitating, flurrisome—spot-on for both of us. Flurrisome Charles had the brains. Flurisome John has the meds and the afternoon nap.

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The Darwin we all know and love. (Credit: Wikipedia)

The part of Darwin’s story I love best takes place when he was near death. As he suffered through the final stages of heart disease, he continued to work as his body permitted. Quammen explained that a colleague who knew of Darwin’s interest in the migration of plants and animals discovered a clam attached to a beetle and wondered if this oddity might indicate that a sea creature could migrate by attaching itself to a bird. The colleague mailed the beetle/clam to Darwin so that he could look for himself. By the time he received the box, the clam and beetle had separated, and the former was dead, the latter languishing. As Darwin wrote the sender, he placed the dying beetle in a jar with torn up laurel leaves, which exuded a chemical that would help the poor thing relax and die in peace. Darwin himself followed the beetle into eternity about two weeks later. So even as one of the most brilliant minds in history was dying, he took time to ease the suffering of a beetle. Darwin considered himself an atheist. So be it. I call him “brother.”

Happy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln, My Weary, Burdened Brother!

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Abraham Lincoln about two months before his assassination–such tired eyes. (Credit: Wikipedia)

A couple years ago on this day’s A Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor told me a couple facts I didn’t know about Abraham Lincoln—facts that make me doubly grateful for his stay in the White House.

The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll include it here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

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Abraham Lincoln’s “life mask” from 1860–better than a death mask. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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Lincoln at Gettysburg just after delivering his address. (Credit: Wikipedia)

I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.

So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.

The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told had to do with a letter the President is thought to have written to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

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Retouched post-mortem photograph. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Some historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay. Whatever: if Lincoln had such a gifted writer on his staff, I’m willing to call that moving letter co-authored.

Do any of these historical facts matter? They do to me. And I bet Lincoln would have cared on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after giving his 272-word address, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in the grainy photograph with the weight of millions of Americans on his tired shoulders?

I pray today that in repose he hears me call him brother.

Micro-Post: 7:00 a.m. A Renegade Smile at My Non-Toothache

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A photograph of something not wrong. I smile at the avocado. (Credit: Pulp Photography / Corbis)

When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. “Breathing in, I am aware of my non-toothache. Breathing out, I smile at my non-toothache.” We can touch our non-toothache with our mindfulness, and even with our hands. When we have asthma and can hardly breathe, we realize that breathing freely is a wonderful thing. Even when we have just a stuffed nose, we know that breathing freely is a wonderful thing (From Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Life Is a Miracle” in Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 2001).

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Nice lotus position! Yeah, this is not me because: I weighed more than this guy when I was born; I avoid neckties; what he’s doing with his legs would put me in the hospital with a fractured pelvis and a concussion from falling off that filing cabinet. (Credit: Plush Studios / Blended Images / Corbis)

I sit up straight against my husband (that would be a sit-up-in-bed pillow), put the soles of my feet together, and draw both heels in—a pudgy guy’s lotus position. A couple minutes ago, Kathy pulled back the covers: “I really have to get up. Got to shower.” She loves me, understands I’m trying to bounce back from a tough emotional stretch. But it’s one thing to love someone, another to grant marital patience to a neurotic spouse since 1983.

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A husband pillow–mine, in fact.

That’s where today’s renegade prayer begins. The idea is to breathe and abide in Divine Love, not to glom onto thoughts, but gratefulness takes over. I smile at my wife.

My right knee rests against nap and prayer partner Watson’s back. I smile at my dog.

Micah’s turbo alarm goes off. Soon I’ll drive him to work. I smile at my son, at his sobriety, at his zealous work ethic. I knew it! I knew he had it in him! Proud.

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You show that wall who’s boss, son! I smile at you.

Yesterday daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole came over for Matt’s birthday: California melts and chicken noodle soup. I smile at food, shelter, and love that pours out more than my cup can hold.

The church I serve is full of compassion. I smile at my sisters and brothers, all of us trying to love our way through this crazy world.

And my teeth are okay these days. No throbbing, no cracked incisors. I smile at my non-toothache.

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The kindest depiction of my teeth ever, courtesy of Meghan, hangs on my office door.

A few years ago: I had bronchitis and cracked a rib coughing; my dad was sobbing and howling his way through dementia; my naps were delicious only because they were an escape. I smile at my clear lungs. I smile at you, Dad, resting in the lap of mercy. I smile at 3:00 p.m., the gentle rest that’s no longer about survival.

And I have you, sisters and brothers visiting A Napper’s Companion. I smile at you, and in this final moment before Amen pray you are whole and at peace.

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Wholeness and peace. A view from the deck of Scholastica, a hermitage on stilts at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania.

Micro-Post: The Hug

6:35 p.m.: Kathy and I are in the kitchen, listening to Scott Pelley tell us that terrorists may smuggle ingredients for explosives onto planes in toothpaste tubes. If airlines forbid passengers from bringing toiletries to the Sochi Olympic Games, lots of athletes and fans are going to get funky. But maybe they won’t get blown up. Who knows?

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Ultra-Bright gives your mouth . . . KA BOOM! (Credit: Scott Ehardt)

Kathy nursed ten patients today. Tired, boss. Dog tired. While I stare at the anchor’s face, she has the obituaries spread out on the counter. “Oh,” she says. Silence, then again, “Oh.” She’s cared for them, heard their stories. Compassion and science haven’t yet eliminated cancer’s mad attrition rate. Damn it!

What to do? Mercy’s gravity draws Kathy and me into a hug, a long one. We sway, almost dance. Breathe in, breathe out. I rest my lips on her hair, receive thirty-three years of home.

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On the kitchen sill, light draws life into an embrace.

That’s what this hug is: home. Shenley Drive and Erie are great, but they’re not my earthly residence. I’m at rest here, in Kathy’s arms, her graying hair against my cheek. Explosions and funeral arrangements are white noise. Where two or three are gathered . . . yes, the Holy Mystery shares our breathing. Hosanna! Save us! Shamatha. Abide in calm.

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Probably what Kathy and I look like: a couple of Japanese macaques hanging on to each other. Home sweet home! (Credit: DLILLC / Corbis.)

A minute isn’t enough, but it’ll do. “You should go sit in bed,” I say. “Rest. I’ll get dinner.”

So Kathy goes upstairs, and I make meatloaf and sweet potato fries and listen to Leon Redbone: “Ain’t Misbehavin’”; “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker”; “My Melancholy Baby.” Come to me, my melancholy baby. Cuddle up and don’t be blue.

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Kathy with the best medicine for melancholy: grandson Cole! She loves me but doesn’t giggle like this when we hug.

We eat in bed and fall asleep early, blessed to have house and home. We wish the gorgeous, dynamite world around us grace and peace.

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Gorgeous: winter trees on Shenley Drive

A Prayer for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Justin Bieber, and a Child in a Fire

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (Credit: Wikipedia)

I was settling in for my Sunday afternoon ministerial nap with a little channel surfing, and there it was on CNN: Philip Seymour Hoffman found dead in his bathroom; heroin in apartment; needle in his arm. I hollered downstairs for son Micah, a former addict. He sat on the bed at my feet, said, “Oh, no!” and put his face in his hands.

I let a minute pass. “Would he have known what was happening to him?”

“No,” Micah said. “He would’ve passed out right away. He died in a couple minutes.” Clean for over eighteen months, Micah would know.

Heroin has been in the news in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio lately—maybe beyond, I don’t know. Some sinister entrepreneurs came up with the idea of mixing fentanyl with heroin. The problem: fentanyl is 10 to 100 times stronger than heroin. One recent batch from Allegheny County in southwest Pennsylvania contained 50% fentanyl. Good night!

People are dying, and Hoffman himself appears to have overdosed on that sketchy brew. Maybe because Micah’s a fan, this average-looking-at-best actor is taking up spiritual room in me today. He was at the top of his game, most likely in great shape financially, but there was an ache in him somewhere. At least I imagine this was so. I bet most of us have pain burrowed down so far inside that nothing much can reach it.

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Justin Bieber (Credit: Wikipedia)

Without knowing it, Hoffman foreshadowed the difficulties of another troubled celebrity in a 2006 60 Minutes interview. He may as well have been talking about Justin Bieber, who at that time was probably up close to the mirror, searching for his first whisker. Hoffman said,

I always think, God, I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich — I’m like, ‘My God, I’d be dead’ — 19, beautiful, famous and rich, that would be it, you know … I think back at that time and think if I had the money, that kind of money.

Ironic, of course: Hoffman’s dead anyway. During Micah’s first months of sobriety, he mentioned that eventually shooting up wasn’t any fun. Life was just about getting ahold of drugs so he wouldn’t feel like crap. I wonder if that’s how it was with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

And what’s Justin Bieber thinking? Beautiful and famous and rich, he’s apparently shaking his groove thing at the edge of the abyss; that is if the news is accurate. Fast cars, booze, some weed. Who knows? Is Bieber going through too much, too fast, too young? Nineteen year olds can be explosive to start with. Whatever his deal, I’d say from my spectator’s distance that inner-peace isn’t part of the package.

What must it be like to have over 200,000 citizens sign a petition calling for you to be deported? My friend Mark posted an insightful defense of the Canadian heartthrob on Facebook a couple days ago:

I’m about tired of people crushing Justin Beiber. Get all your jokes out now. Ha ha ha. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage boys. Are you done? Good. I may be over sensitive to the abuse put on the kid because one of my girls loves him. She is crestfallen every time she hears bad press and even more devastated with the ensuing public dismantling. I love her. So when she hurts, I hurt. I don’t like his music and he’s made some absolutely stupid decisions. HE’S 19! Who among us didn’t do stupid stuff at 19? Okay, take 19 year old you and add, say, 10 million dollars. Holy Crap! Now factor in that everybody with a camera wants to take a picture of you. If you’re doing something wrong, even better. Multiply that by the fact that nobody ever told the kid “no”. He was their meal ticket. They had to keep him happy, no supervision makes a happy teen. All this, and he has screaming hoards of women of all ages wanting to, um, get with him. It’s just math people. He’s going to be a little screwed up.

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Daughter Elena holding grandson Cole. Proposal: What if I try to hold the world and everybody in it with this tenderness and joy? I want to try.

I don’t know if Bieber was never told “no,” but Mark’s got it right. If anything, the kid deserves our understanding. It’s easy to condemn Philip Seymour Hoffman’s junkie death and Justin Bieber’s dumb-ass choices, but only if addiction’s never had you by the throat or your post-pubescent brain has never told you the evil-twin lies: “You’re always right, and you’re invincible.”

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Credit: corbisimages.com

The last thing Hoffman and Bieber need is my judgment. What they need is all the compassion I can muster. (And it ain’t easy with the latter’s chronically raised eyebrows and extravagant fitteds.) In fact, that’s what every corner of creation needs: my compassion.

Each week I spend hours in contemplative prayer, and you’d think heroin addicts and crazy kids would barge in on my silence and demand my attention. Sometimes this happens, but Hoffman, Bieber, and company are more likely to visit me at an inconvenient moment. On Sunday mornings, just before the congregation receives Holy Communion, we sing the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The last words are “grant us peace.” We sing it three sweet times: “Grant us peace. Grant us peace. Grant us peace.”

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Grant us peace! (Credit: Lew Robertson / Corbis)

I stand still and pray quietly: “Grant us peace!” I have just a few seconds; if I don’t start distributing the bread, people will think I’ve fallen asleep on my feet. Ah well. Philip Seymour Hoffman will arrive next Sunday, and I’ll sing, “Grant him peace.” Justin Bieber, too: “Grant him peace.” The four-year-old Erie girl who died in a house fire yesterday will appear: “Grant her peace.” And the firefighters who tried to save her: “Grant them peace.”

“Grant us peace.” Part of me wants to stand still in my alb and stole long after the congregation has gone home and sing: “Peace!” Peace for the wealthy and poor with needles stuck in their veins. Peace for the invincible. Peace for saints and sinners everywhere. Peace and healing to that hidden place in all of us, that dark corner where tears reside.

All are welcome in this prayer. Are you suffering? Are you alone to blame? Are you dead, gone into Mystery? Can you hear me? Show up in my spirit. I’ll sing your lovely name to God.